AgriLife Extension agents honor Rio Farms' Dale Murden
Dale Murden is not the type to seek out awards. But when he received one recently from the Texas County Agriculture Agents Association, it hit him hard.
"It meant a lot to me. I was extremely honored and humbled, especially because Texas AgriLife Extension Service has been such a big part of my whole life," he said.
Since 1999, Murden has been the president and general manager of Rio Farms, Inc., a unique and historical 18,000-acre private farming organization in deep South Texas.
In July, Murden was awarded the association's "Man of the Year in Texas Agriculture" award for his tireless efforts as an advocate for agricultural producers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, according to Brad Cowan, an AgriLife Extension agent in Hidalgo County.
"Dale has a long and fruitful relationship with AgriLife Extension dating back to citrus surveys he was helping us with when he was fresh out of high school in the early 1980s," Cowan said.
Murden fondly recalls those days of being on a team that surveyed 1,500 citrus trees in Hidalgo and Cameron counties every two weeks as part of the state's first citrus integrated pest management program.
"It was IPM at its finest," Murden said. "We were under the direction of Dr. Leon Smith, and the idea was to determine the threshold of rust mite populations to give growers a better sense of when to apply treatment sprays."
Back then, as today, rust mites were the greatest threat to fresh citrus fruits, marring their appearance and sending them to juice plants, Murden said.
The program eventually fell by the wayside due to funding cutbacks and devastating freezes in 1983 and again in 1989 that decimated citrus tree populations in the area.
"But it helped growers become aware of the importance of integrated pest management practices," he said. "And I got the chance to rub shoulders with Extension people I admired, including Dr. Smith, Gattis Guffy, David Sandifer and others."
It also gave him a chance to expand his horizons beyond his grandfather's 200-acre farm in Santa Rosa where he grew up, Murden added.
He began working at Rio Farms in 1987, where he's "done it all," Murden said.
Rio Farms traces its roots back to Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1941, when it was chartered by the U.S. government as a "charitable, benevolent institution" that helped hundreds of tenant farmers get their start in agriculture.
"Some of the Valley's most productive farmers of the 1940s, '50s and '60s that put the Rio Grande Valley on the agricultural map of the world got their start at Rio Farms as tenant trainees," Murden said.
By 1972, the times had changed and so did Rio Farms. Gone were the days of 100 farming families spread out over 28,000 acres throughout the Valley. The operation changed to an 1,800-acre agricultural research and demonstration operation.
Now, only 14 tenants live and work there, keeping 80 percent of what they produce and leaving Rio Farms with 20 percent to spend on land improvements, facilities and research projects, Murden said.
"Dale and Rio Farms work very closely with AgriLife Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture," Cowan said. "He is a firm believer in the value of AgriLife Extension education, having hosted countless field days, master marketer trainings and irrigation seminars."
The collaboration has created a widespread reputation, Cowan said.
"It's well known throughout the Valley that when Rio Farms and AgriLife Extension host a producer meeting, the program will be first-rate, the room will be packed, the lunch will be great and ag producers will be all the wiser for having attended," he said.
Cowan also notes that helping local growers produce a more bountiful crop is only half of what Murden does.
"Today, Dale spends half his time walking between rows of experimental crops at Rio Farms and the other half walking the halls of Congress on behalf of Valley farmers," Cowan said. "He excels at both."