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Jeff Witte receives honor from National Association of State Departments of Agriculture

Las Cruces, N.M - Jeff Witte, New Mexico Department of Agriculture's director of agricultural biosecurity, received the James A. Graham Award for Outstanding Service to Agriculture during the annual meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in Montgomery, Ala., Sept. 20.

Jeff Witte, right, and New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Miley Gonzalez display the James A. Graham Award for Outstanding Service to Agriculture that Witte received from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture during the organization's annual conference in Montgomery, Ala., Sept. 20. (NASDA Photo)

Witte was honored for his work with the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center (SWBFSDC), which is housed at New Mexico State University, where he has worked closely with various private entities, state and federal agencies, and research institutions on issues related to agriculture and homeland security.

"I am extremely honored that Miley Gonzalez, New Mexico's secretary of agriculture, nominated me, and I am very humbled to receive this award," Witte said. "We have a great team at NMDA and NMSU, and I have a great team at home. This work could not be accomplished without support from them all." The award is presented annually to honor an individual who provides outstanding services to agricultural producers.

Witte is co-founder and co-director of the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center, a partnership between NMDA and NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has charged the Center with administering all programs related to agro-security in the state.

As the Center's co-director, Witte conducts strategic planning, with a special emphasis on risk assessment and coordination among the agriculture industry, tribal entities, and federal and state agencies in their efforts to secure a safe food supply, from the grower to the consumer.

Witte also coordinates research in animal illness symptom surveillance and trains agricultural industry personnel in emergency preparedness and terrorism awareness. As part of these efforts, the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center, NMSU and NMDA have joined other members of the National Coalition for Agriculture Security Training to develop a pilot course titled "Preparing Communities for Agroterrorism."

Witte helped coordinate the Border Governors Association's "Ten-State Tabletop Exercise" in 2006 and 2007, and he will direct the 2009 exercise Nov. 4-5 in Las Cruces. The exercises present participants with true-to-life scenarios such as animal disease outbreaks, food safety issues and acts of terrorism. First-responder agencies from the 10 states in the U.S. and Mexico that share the international border participate in the exercises, which teach responders how to effectively react to each scenario.

The Center is recognized as a national leader in developing and conducting programs related to agro-security and food safety. It has developed and established many programs important to New Mexico, including the AgroGuard Program, a neighborhood-watch-like program for agricultural operations; the New Mexico Agriculture Livestock Incident Response Team (NM-ALIRT) program, consisting of 25 large-animal veterinarians; the Avian Influenza Response Teams; and three certified Incident Command System training courses.

Because the threats to agricultural biosecurity are national, the Center has established partnerships with the University of Tennessee Veterinary School, Louisiana State University's National Center for Biomedical Research and Training, the National Center for Food Safety and Defense at the University of Minnesota, Kansas State University, the University of Kentucky, and Purdue University.

As a collaborator and instructor with NMSU and the University of Kentucky, Witte helps develop curriculum and training for the Extension Disaster Education Network's Strengthening Community Agro-security Planning pilot workshops.

Through these various workshops and scenario exercises, community partners and Cooperative Extension Service personnel learn to handle emergencies and disasters, improve networking for responders, and develop community agro-security planning teams to improve existing local plans. Pilot workshops have been conducted in New Mexico, Michigan, Tennessee, Utah, Nebraska, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Witte has also been instrumental in mobilizing the entire Cooperative Extension system in New Mexico to train more than 50,000 New Mexicans in agriculture and food security and to distribute 400 emergency response kits to county Extension offices, agriculture science centers, NMDA personnel and New Mexico livestock inspectors. Four thousand animal health emergency kits were distributed to 4-H and FFA livestock exhibitor families, and a number of kits were provided to law enforcement canine officers, Border Patrol canine officers and animal control officers.

Since its inception in 2006, the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center has obtained $4.183 million in federal and state grants and contracts. This funding supports programs that have trained and certified New Mexicans in the prevention of and first response to terrorism, animal emergencies, threats to feed supplies, and deadly outbreaks of animal diseases such as avian influenza on poultry farms and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly called mad cow disease.