Remember when Sid Miller suggested that the entire “Muslim world” should be nuked? How about when he brought back deep fryers and sugary drinks to school cafeterias? Or when he was accused of exercising a horse by tying it to his truck and driving around? The list of questionable decisions made by Texas’ agriculture commissioner could go on and on. Miller might be the last rodeo-cowboy-turned-Twitter-clown that you would expect to make a sound decision, especially when it could hurt him politically.
But that appears to be what happened last week when Miller surprised cattle pesticide sprayers in Raymondville. After “a personal inspection visit,” Miller put the kibosh on the chemical applications, citing noncompliance with state and federal rules. And while routine enforcement is not out of the norm for the Texas Department of Agriculture, it’s certainly unusual for Miller to personally flex his agency’s regulatory muscle.
At issue are “spray boxes,” small, mobile metal chutes where cows are herded single-file and doused with poison to rid them of an invasive, disease-harboring tick. Miller was reportedly responding to ranchers’ complaints that the spray boxes, operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Texas Animal Health Commission, had killed some of their cattle. His investigation found that applicators had misapplied Bayer’s Co-Ral pesticide in a confined, poorly ventilated space, a violation of the chemical’s federally approved label. Miller also noted that no licensed pesticide applicator was on-site.
He shut down the Raymondville site and 15 other South Texas spraying operations. “Everybody agrees we need to fight Cattle Fever Ticks with everything we’ve got,” Miller wrote in a press release. “But here in Texas we’re going to do it according to the law in a way that doesn’t kill cattle.” It wasn’t clear as of Tuesday whether the spraying operations were shut down temporarily or permanently. The Texas Department of Agriculture has not answered Observer questions for this story.
In response to Miller’s enforcement, two of the state’s most powerful agriculture lobbying groups, the Texas Farm Bureau and the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, have gone on the offensive, condemning his decision in the press. The Texas Farm Bureau said last week that Miller “has jeopardized the health of the Texas cattle herd and the viability of farmers and ranchers.” Robert McKnight, president of Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers, told the San Antonio Express-News, “Commissioner Miller’s efforts are actually detrimental to cattle raisers who rely on the use of spray boxes to eradicate cattle fever ticks from their operations.”
While the groups’ heartburn over Miller’s decision isn’t likely to swing the statewide seat to Democratic candidate Kim Olson in November, it is a sign of Miller’s deteriorating relationship with important rural lobbying groups, and it could spell trouble for Miller next time he’s up for re-election.
“Cattle fever ticks,” as they’re known, first crept into South Texas from Mexico in the late 1800s, carrying bovine babesiosis, a disease that causes anemia, fever and death in infected cattle. There is no cure. Back then, the tick made Texas cattle “the pariah of the plains” and stood to decimate the U.S. cattle herd, which is why Texas established a permanent quarantine zone of eight counties along the border from Val Verde to Cameron. Ranchers in quarantine zones must submit their cattle for inspection — and depending on whether ticks are found, treatment — before the animal can be sent to the sale barn.
Miller has not specified how many reports of animal deaths his office has received. But at least one South Texas rancher has sued the USDA over the matter, claiming that the pesticide applications killed “several” of his cattle. Juan Delgadillo, a Cameron County cattle and horse rancher, wrote in the 2017 lawsuit that the spray boxes, along with “dipping vats,” where cows are more or less immersed in a pond of Co-Ral mixed with water, inevitably cause animals to ingest the poison. Delgadillo is seeking $1 million in damages.
Miller’s decision to shut down the spray boxes is somewhat out of character, considering that in 2017 he suggested that the label instructions governing the use of a feral hog poison could simply be altered to make its application easier (a violation of federal law). An Observer investigation previously found that Miller’s agriculture department is lax when it comes to punishing crop dusters who break the law by drifting chemicals onto people, plants and animals.
The Texas Farm Bureau and the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers deny that Co-Ral misapplications have resulted in any cattle deaths, and they’ve called on Miller to reverse his decision. The bureau has been somewhat frosty with Miller since before he took office, withholding its endorsement in 2014 and again this year. But even in that context, the organization hasn’t before been this direct in its criticism of Miller. With Miller’s spray box decision, he may find himself moved from the bureau’s cold shoulder to its shit list.
Miller has had a decidedly better relationship with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. His re-election bid has been endorsed by the group’s political action committee; the PAC has put at least $5,000 into Miller’s campaign this year. That’s not a mountain of money as far as contributions go, but it does show that Miller has — or at least had — the group’s backing. That’s more than you can say for the Texas Nursery and Landscaping Association, a group Miller is a member of, which made headlines this year by endorsing his primary opponent, former Monsanto lobbyist Trey Blocker.
In the March primary, Miller avoided a runoff with just shy of 56 percent of the vote. He took most of Texas handily, except, as luck would have it, in South Texas, where opponent Jim Hogan — a candidate who refused to accept contributions — won six counties from Laredo to Brownsville. Blocker took Dimmit, one of the only counties he won.
Miller’s decision to halt spray boxes may be an attempt to shore up support in that ticky corner of Texas. Or maybe Miller has been bitten by a fever tick himself, which would explain why he’s made the perhaps politically stupid choice of working on his constituents’ behalf.