LAS CRUCES, N.M. — There are a couple of simple rules to follow on New Mexico ranches: Don't go back on your word, don't shirk your turn at bailing hay, and don't ever — ever — feed Skittles to a man's cattle.
"Sure, they taste good and they'll eat them, but they aren't good for them," said Mark Santiago, the director of the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum on Dripping Springs Road on the outskirts of Las Cruces.
With neighborhood developments catching up to outlying museum properties, farm life is having to adapt to curious city folk poking about ranch property. So Skittles — which some visitors recently offered his cattle — discarded candy wrappings, and the wide array of risks to urbanites who try interacting with cattle were on Santiago's mind as he walked through the 47-acre property that is devoted to showcasing the 3,000-year history of farming and ranching in New Mexico.
When the museum was opened in 1998, it was surrounded by open space.
"Now we are being surrounded by development," said Santiago as he stood on a sandy desert trail and pointed at the surrounding neighborhoods slowly closing in on the once-isolated expanse of property.
The only solution, he said, is to build a fence around the ranch to limit interaction between ranch animals and people, especially students, walking through the ranch area who might be tempted to hop the current wooden corral fences and get close to animals.
"Our concern is that as more and more residential and business things develop around the museum, we will become a rural island in an urban sea," he said.
With the August opening of Centennial High School — and the thousands of students, staff and visitors who will soon be swarming the campus less than a half mile away — ranch hands say a fence may prevent a tragedy befalling students walking by the ranch and venturing into the stable area. The campus itself has an aluminum fence tucked up against its property, but the desert beyond is clear of any obstacles up to the wooden stall fences that house the ranch's livestock.
"People don't realize what these things weigh," said Greg Ball, the ranch's livestock manager, about some of the animals housed on the ranch.
"I've got a bull over there that weighs close to 3,000 pounds. You can love all over him, and as soon as he moves wrong and smashes you, the fun is over," he said.
Museum officials have appealed to the Department of Cultural Affairs - the agency that provides their funding - for the money to build the fence.
In July, the Department of Cultural Affairs submitted to the state finance committee a request of $16 million for their statewide use, said Anne Green-Romig, the department's director of legislative affairs. Included in that request is $750,000 for a security fence and "language that at this point could accommodate" the construction of the fence, she said.
But, she emphasized, bills may change in scope and funding between now and Feb. 16, which is the last day of the Legislature.
"What is introduced is not ever what comes out," Green-Romig said.
Even if all the requested funds are awarded, she explained, the governor could still exercise a line-item veto on March 7 that would affect the funding.
After funds are awarded, the department would take about a month to decide how to use that money throughout the state.
Dave DeWitt, chairman of the governing board of the Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum, said he believed the fence represented a "liability issue that should be handled now, not later."
"Big animals are dangerous. I am trying to avoid any harm to anybody. We don't want any harm to come to anyone from our museum."
Santiago added: "You have a 3,000 pound bull versus a 120 pound teenager, who is going to win? That's our concern."
Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News, http://www.lcsun-news.com