Farmers say a problem is tumbling on the land

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers

FLOYD — Sharon Russell and her mother don’t come out to the family house northwest of Floyd much anymore. But they still love the small group of farmers that live near the Melrose Bombing Range.

“This is a good community,” Russell said. “We stick together.”

Today, those community members are bonded by a situation they say endangers their homes and livelihood as farmers, and has grown to a point beyond their capabilities to remedy.

The situation revolves around tumbleweeds.

Russell said her family has owned its pink-brick house with a farm neighboring the bombing-range property since 1957. Though her mother Dorothy now lives in Portales, the family wishes to keep the house through many generations.

During a recent visit to the house, Sharon Russell said the property was overrun with tumbleweeds. In some areas, the tumbleweeds were stacked 10 to 15 feet high. Sharon Russell said it took her an hour to clear a path roughly 20 feet long from the home to a wheat field the family is leasing.

Thanks to volunteering neighbors and some careful work with a torch, the Russells were able to eliminate most of the tumbleweeds around the house after about a week of work. Still, Sharon Russell fears the next mess is only one more gust away.

The bombing range is littered with thousands of tumbleweeds. When the wind blows to the east, the farmers know those tumbleweeds will arrive on their farms.

Farmers claim the tumbleweeds grew in the area largely because grazing does not take place on the bombing range. The high amount of moisture this year — some areas in eastern New Mexico have received nearly double the average amount of rainfall — provided a fertile ground for tumbleweeds and set the stage for more next year, Sharon Russell said.

Cannon Air Force Base is responsible for the bombing range, but officials aren’t sure what they can do to solve the tumbleweed problem.

“While it is unfortunate that the ranchers have to deal with the tumbleweeds,” a news release from Cannon’s public affairs office said, “New Mexico law provides that property owners, in this case the Air Force, have no obligation to protect neighboring property from blowing tumbleweeds since they are being moved by a force of nature.”

Bruce Lee, who has farmed in the area since 1983, said the tumbleweed problem is twofold. First, tumbleweeds that blow through will damage cotton.

“I farmed a farm just west of here and I got to see it happen out there,” said Lee, who estimates that tumbleweeds damage about 40 to 50 pounds of cotton per acre. Lee said a good harvest usually yields 950 pounds of cotton per acre.

The other problem, Lee said, is that someone must remove the tumbleweeds from the fields before the harvesting machines can come through.

Lee said he had to hire 13 people to harvest this year because of the weeds. He said he normally needs only five to help with his harvest.

Delo Stephenson, who has farmed in the area since 1946, said he can’t remember tumbleweeds being more than a nuisance until this year. Now, he gets upset when he thinks about the tumbleweeds that have come through his property, or when he looks at the fence to the east to see the next set of tumbleweeds.

“What am I going to do about those weeds?” Stephenson said. “I can’t burn them because of my property here.”

Tumbleweeds burn quickly — a relief when farmers destroy them in a controlled area, but not when they stack up against a building, a house or a field full of crops and one spark could lead to a disaster.

“It’s a mess,” said farmer Thomas McAlister. “The whole area would burn up if there was a fire.”

Cannon officials said the Air Force is always concerned about potential fire hazards and wants to ensure the appropriate actions are taken in the interest of the bombing range and the adjacent farms.

“While it is unfortunate that ranchers are dealing with this tumbleweed issue, fiscal laws limit how the Air Force spends taxpayer dollars,” the public affairs office said in its statement. “However, the Air Force will do what it can within those constraints to ensure we are not only good stewards of taxpayer dollars and the environment but also good neighbors to local citizens.”