“We’ll go somewhere where there’s cheese!”

A little bit of California comes to the Panhandle.

“It is remote, and I’ll tell you what: It took a little getting used to,” said Richard Avila, who’s in the process of moving much of his family’s 119-year-old Northern California dairy operation to the Panhandle. “But every time I go back home to California, I can’t wait to get back to Texas. There are too many people there.”

Jobs abound in the northwestern Panhandle right now, but despite Dalhart’s quaint brick streets, tree-lined neighborhoods, clean air and water and country living, its isolation makes the town of 7,300 a tough sell.

How remote is it? The nearest city of more than 100,000 residents is Amarillo, 70 miles to the southeast. The closest large cities — Albuquerque, Oklahoma City and Denver — are more than 270 driving miles away.

Dalhart is nearer to six other state capitals (Cheyenne, Denver, Lincoln, Oklahoma City, Santa Fe and Topeka) than its own, and it’s a shorter drive to Mount Rushmore than to Houston, which is 690 miles down the road.

Yet those lonely High Plains around Dalhart, the scene of epic drought-born sandstorms in the 1930s, are now seeing an economic perfect storm of sorts, stoked by a massive cheese plant, the influx of large-scale dairies and a booming ethanol-fueled corn industry.

Add existing employers, such as feedlots, a meatpacker and the Dalhart Unit state prison, and the area’s slogan may as well be “Help Wanted.”

So far, Avila has moved 600 Jersey cows from California, and 750 more are on the way, with a goal of 2,400 head by 2009. He said fellow dairymen are resettling around Dalhart and Dumas at around $1,200 an acre after selling land back home at $25,000 an acre.

But money is only part of the reason behind the new migration, he said.

“It’s a $47 billion industry in California, and they’re hell-bent on forcing us out of there with all the crazy regulations they have,” Avila said, bemoaning an alphabet soup of state and local agencies, mostly environmental.

“It’s not that Texas doesn’t have regulations. Texas does, but they’re consistent and constant. Unlike California, they don’t change their minds every week.”

Well, there’s an argument for a biennial Legislature if ever I’ve heard one.

Hilmar Cheese, named for the central-California town, eventually plans to make a half-million pounds a day of cheddar, Colby, pepper jack and Monterey jack. Texas currently doesn’t produce enough cheese to be listed by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, but Hilmar by itself would cause it to rank 10th at full production.

“Our decision to expand our operations to Dalhart was based on several key factors, including Texas’ positive business climate, reliable regulatory environment and an up-and-coming local dairy industry in Dalhart and the greater Amarillo area,” said John Jeter, chief executive and president of Hilmar Cheese.

Taxpayers chipped in, too. In competition with Idaho, the Texas Enterprise Fund ponied up $7.5 million, and the plant secured millions more in grants, tax breaks and tax abatements from local and regional governments.

The plant will employ about 120, eventually ramping up to 300 as more dairies justify more production capacity. Avila said dairies hire approximately one person per 100 head of cattle, meaning more than 1,000 milkers would be needed for the Dalhart-Dumas area if all current and permitted projects stock their allotted number of Jerseys or Holsteins.

Let’s do a little back-of-the-envelope math here. We don’t know how much “millions more in grants, tax breaks and tax abatements from local and regional governments” means, but let’s say it’s equivalent to the $7.5 million that the Rick Perry Slush Fund ponied up. Let’s assume also that a total of 300 jobs will eventually exist, and that none of this would have happened without the incentives provided. That’s $50,000 per job, assuming all the moneys are one-time only. Does that make economic sense? I’m not qualified to answer that question, but I sure can ask it.

One more thing:

Panhandle milkers can earn about $36,000 after three years, Avila said, outstripping the base salary of veteran correctional officers at the Dalhart Unit, where overtime is mandatory because staffing is under 70 percent.

Warden Eddie Wheeler is trying to stay positive in the face of the area’s opportunity onslaught, which threatens to make his unattractive jobs even more so.

“You get a married couple that moves here, one works (in the dairy industry), and hopefully we pick up the other one,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it.”

You think any of that new prison spending that was just authorized will go towards helping Warden Wheeler with his employment situation? Call me crazy, but I’m thinking “No”.

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