Wells are running dry in drought-weary Southwest as foreign-owned farms guzzle water to feed cattle overseas
A dryland farming family from New Mexico is struggling to make ends meet in the desert southwest as international companies buy up their crop.
In recent years a small number of cattle ranchers have established businesses from scratch in the arid state, selling livestock to beef and veal producers and processing them on the other side of the world.
But now foreign-owned farms have been granted more water licences, and many are selling cattle to farmers in Africa and Australia, taking advantage of cheaper feed prices.
Some ranchers are even moving to cities like Las Vegas.
They hope the influx of immigrants and the money they bring with them will keep the economy afloat as prices for cotton and corn decline.
The problem is only going to get worse, given last month’s record rains, making the region more sensitive to water shortages.
So many cattle are being bought that many people are worried about where and how they are being fed.
“Farming is becoming a very profitable business. If it’s worth it, then people will do it,” said Steve Miller, who runs a cattle ranch in south-eastern New Mexico.
He and fellow rancher Doug Brubaker run their operation out of a trailer on a ranch in southwestern New Mexico, some 150 miles (241km) from where they started.
Some 50 cows, three goats and two horses live on the ranch – a small piece of Earth with some water and grass, but plenty of space to run about.
It is the smallest of their cattle farms so they don’t have a lot of animals to worry about, but it takes up all the space they have a right to in the tight grid of the desert, and that means more water.
“You have to water for the land, or for water that may run off the crops, or for people to eat, or for cattle to drink, so it’s sort of a balancing act,” Miller said.
The New Mexican ranchers are the only such farmers who are buying cattle that have already been processed at the ends of the Earth rather than the beginning.
The processing plants are owned by foreign-led companies which contract with American companies called slaughterhouses.
Those slaughterhouses have their own water licences and those they don’t have, like the