Just as the Rio Grande floods the Mesilla Valley's fertile farmland every growing season with the promise of a good harvest, agriculture nourishes the area's economy and people.

"Everybody in this valley-whether they just came in yesterday or they've been here for 90 years-knows that agriculture helps make this such a good place to live," says Javier Vargas, retired Doña Ana County agriculture agent with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.

The industry thrives here, Vargas says, because of a good water supply from the Rio Grande and a hot, arid climate. But, most important, the farmers and ranchers make the difference.

"We have a big advantage that explains why we can produce the highest quality of everything from lettuce to onions to pecans to cotton and chile-our tremendous people in agriculture." There is a strong family farming tradition, but the area has begun to attract "outsiders" as well.

And agriculture isn't just for farmers. It's part of the culture. Even city folk have a penchant for eating only the freshest pecans and roasted green chile and for celebrating harvests with events like The Whole Enchilada Fiesta in Las Cruces each October.

A rich land for planting

Bounded by mesas on the east and west, the Mesilla Valley stretches from just south of Radium Springs in the north to Sunland Park in the south, encompassing much of Doña Ana County and including more than 82,000 acres of irrigated land.

It is clear that agriculture forms the valley's physical identity. Twenty-two percent of land in the county is in farms and ranches-high for an urban area, says Robert Coppedge, an Extension agricultural economist.

The 1997 figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture show that Doña Ana County has more farms than any other county in New Mexico with nearly 1,300.

Vargas says much of the acreage is pieced together from small fields. "Our land is so cut up into small pieces-10 acres here, 30 there-that it's becoming more and more difficult to find a 50-acre field," he says. "There are a lot of small land owners out there, but the few people who are doing the farming bring it together and make it profitable."

Often the line between urban and rural areas is hard to define. Vargas says a growing population will continue to put pressure on the industry. "People are moving out to the country. They're building up around our farmlands that used to be way out in the boonies. With that population pressure, of course, we have to watch out for pesticides. We have to watch out for water drainage."

A stable economy

Agriculture also helps define the valley's economic identity. Land values have been strong for the past five years and continue to increase, says Bruce Keeler, administrative vice president of the Farm Credit office in Las Cruces.

Agriculture brings more than $255 million to Doña Ana County in cash receipts for all farm commodities, second only to Chaves County, according to the New Mexico Agricultural Statistics Service. That's up from about $188 million a decade ago.

"Here in the valley, agriculture continues to grow, but it is growing slowly," says Jim Libbin, agricultural economist with Extension and NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station.

Farms provide more than 2,800 jobs in Doña Ana County, and about 10 percent of all business owners in the county are farm owners.

The valley's farmers are progressive, sound managers and good bets, Keeler says. Much of the agricultural mortgage lending company's business takes place on those infrequent days when it rains in the valley, leaving farmers with a little time for banking. "Rainy days mean busy days for us," Keeler says.

Farm Credit handles 450 loans with $100 million worth of volume, he says. "In this area, we're not seeing a lot of big corporations coming in. Our customers are typically large, strong family operations owned locally."

Dino Cervantes, general manager of Cervantes Enterprises, is part of a three-generation farming family, started by his grandfather on his mother's side, Joe Apodaca.

Today, the family businesses include both farming operations (chile, cotton, lettuce, garlic and fresh-market onions) and a red chile processing plant that turns cayenne peppers into a mash used as a base for barbecue and hot sauces.

After graduating from NMSU in 1985, Cervantes actually left the area for several years to work for Hormel in the fresh meat market. After having to deal with products like Spam, it's no wonder he returned home to chile. "Farming has made a very good living for our family and a good quality of life we enjoy," he says.

A climate for growing

Part of agriculture's economic stability in the Mesilla Valley comes from a long growing season that's helped by mild winters and low humidity.

"We basically start harvesting in April with lettuce and end in January with pecans. We just go all year long. There's no downtime," Libbin explains. "We're harvesting hay at least five times a year, sometimes six."

The climate helps support a diverse industry that includes a cornucopia of crops, as well as ranches, greenhouses and dairies. "We are by far the most diverse area in the state," Libbin says. "And we've got to be one of the most diverse in the nation next to the Pacific Coast states."

Major crops include alfalfa, chile, cotton, corn silage for dairies and a number of fresh-market vegetables like cabbage, lettuce and onions.

With 17,600 acres of pecans, Doña Ana County leads the state in production of this sun-loving, capital-intensive crop. About half the state's production comes from land within a four-mile radius.

David Salopek says his family grew cotton until the late 1960s, when his father decided pecans were a better way to go. Today, David Salopek Farms (named for his late father) includes a 1,000-acre orchard of mostly Western Schley pecans, located five miles south of Las Cruces off Highway 28.

"In the valley, we have a very good climate for pecans," he says. Low humidity means fewer diseases. The elevation means the nights cool off and help produce the creamy, golden pecans consumers are looking for.

Occasionally, the weather doesn't cooperate, as in fall 1992 when the Salopeks lost 300 acres of pecans to hail. "When we were harvesting, there was a definite line where the hail hit," he says. "When your office is outside, you're subject to whatever Mother Nature has to offer you."

The area's abundant sunshine, however, usually prevails. That's a plus for plants that grow indoors. "The high amount of sunlight and the low humidity make an excellent growing climate for greenhouses," says Pete VanderLugt, president of Aldershot of New Mexico Inc.

He came from Canada in 1984 to buy his first New Mexico location off South Main Street in Mesilla Park. Today, with two greenhouse locations in the valley, Aldershot has 23 acres "under cover" that produce an average of 100,000 pots of indoor plants a week for sale primarily to supermarkets and wholesale customers. The number of pots doubles for peak holidays like Christmas and Mother's Day.

The company has 125 employees and produces about 150 items, with the biggest trade in mums and kalanchoes. Although much automation has taken place at Aldershot in the past two years, greenhouse production still requires a lot of labor, from hand-planting
cuttings to packaging the pots in decorative covers and plastic before shipping.

Due to a lack of greenhouse support industry in the area, the majority of the raw material like plastic pots and sleeves must be brought in from many distant suppliers, VanderLugt says. In addition, high shipping costs are incurred to transport the products to population centers throughout the country.

Still, he adds, the climate and the culture have made the valley a good place to live and make a living.

Animals like the 38,000 milk cows in Doña Ana County thrive in the valley's sunshine, too. The dry weather means less mud and fewer diseases and stress for the cows, says Frances Horton, whose Las Uvas Valley Dairy near Hatch is a close neighbor to the Mesilla Valley.

Frances and her husband, Dean, converted their feedlot to a 200-head dairy in 1980, when the beef cattle market was poor. Today, the Hortons are running one of the largest dairies in New Mexico. They have 150 employees milking 8,000 cows 24 hours a day. They raise their own calves to ensure quality replacement heifers.

A place for agribusiness

From lenders like Keeler to processors like Cervantes, there's more to the valley's agricultural industry than growing and producing raw products. Some ag-related businesses go year-round, while others are seasonal.

At the F&A Dairy Products Inc. cheese plant in Las Cruces, the work is not only year-round, it's round-the-clock for 70 employees.

"We have 1.2 million pounds of milk coming in daily, and we're putting out 115,000 pounds of cheese per day," says Bob Snyder, general manager and cheesemaker.

The Wisconsin-based company did a feasibility study before building here in 1994 and found that 75 million pounds of milk were available monthly in the area, much of it from the Las Uvas dairy.
The plant manufactures and packages soft Italian cheeses, mostly mozzarella and provolone, that are shipped nationwide under a variety of private labels and F&A's own premier label, which can be found at area Albertson's Food Centers. A byproduct of processing is whey powder, which is used in candy bars and coffee creamers, and in aspirin as a filler.

"Business has been great since we started. Within six months, the plant was maxed out," Snyder says.

In the Midwest, implement dealers basically close up shop for three or four months each winter. Not so for Mike Griffin, who is general manager of the four-year-old Zia Implement Company in Mesquite. The John Deere dealer says, "There's always something going on here because of the diversity of crops."

Griffin's 28 employees work in a sea of bright green and yellow, selling harvesters, cultivators and the company's signature tractors, ranging from the home garden variety at $1,900 to the 425-horsepower, heavy tillage model at $145,000. "Every area of farming needs tractors," he says.

In just the last two years, sales have increased 15 percent. Yet, Griffin says, his key to success is a commitment to repairs and service. "We need to keep the implements running. Farmers can't afford to have their machines down." That means investment in a large inventory of parts and specialized tools, as well as specialized training for service workers.

For other agribusinesses, harvest time means work time.  "December is usually the peak month for harvesting and buying pecans," says Phillip Arnold with the San Saba pecan buying station in Las Cruces. San Saba is a division of Morven Partners, which buys as much as 90 million pounds of pecans nationwide each year.
Arnold buys from growers with a couple of thousand acres, as well as area residents who have small lots of trees in their backyards. Price depends on supply. "This year the pricing was strong because of short supply. We offered about $1.63 per pound for a good quality truckload."

Pecans bought at the station are shipped to El Paso or San Saba, Texas for shelling, Arnold says. Most are then sold for commercial use by companies like Sara Lee and Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream.

Like Cervantes, Arnold is a native who ventured off after graduating from NMSU. He worked in the meat packing industry in the Midwest for four years before returning home to thaw out. "This is my home," he says.

From mid-September to late December, days are busy for employees of the Biad Chili Co., which operates two chile dehydrating plants in the valley and one in San Simon, Ariz.

Each plant produces 4 to 5 million pounds of dried red chile and paprika annually, says Lou Biad, a partner with his father and brother in the family business. Remaining in the valley has always seemed logical to Biad. "I've been working with chile all my life," he says.
The dehydrated chile is sold wholesale as a raw ingredient in barrels or 1,000-pound sacks to spice companies and the "batter and blends" business for chicken breading and seasoning mixes.
The Biad family also owns Rezolex Co., an oleoresin paprika extractor, constructed in 1992. Oleoresin is a dark red, oil-like substance that's used as a natural food coloring in butter, batters and many microwaveable products.

Room for change and diversity

New processing ventures like the cheese and extracting plants are encouraging signs to Libbin, who says growth in agricultural production can't continue indefinitely.

"We have land and water limitations. Our opportunities for agriculture are not as great as they are elsewhere in the country," he says.

To Karin Davidson, president of the Doña Ana County Farm and Livestock Bureau, water is both the valley's biggest strength and biggest concern. "We have a lot of people who want that water. Who's going to get it?" she asks. "Do farmers who conserve water have more right to it? Who pays for conservation?"

The valley's farmers also face rising costs of inputs for everything from labor and equipment to seed and fertilizer. The reluctance of chemical companies to develop and register pesticides for crops considered minor nationally, along with urban encroachment, makes pest control difficult, Davidson says.

Other challenges include some crops that may not be as stable as area farmers once thought. For example, the boll weevil is taking a toll on cotton.

"We've never had to deal with a real devastating situation like the boll weevil before," Vargas says. "We've had insects like the pecan nut casebearer, which is devastating because it takes time, effort and money to control. But the boll weevil can go right through like a lawn mower and take an industry out."

Extension economist Bill Gomez, who served as the interim director of the South Central Cotton Boll Weevil Control Committee, is hoping that a grower-funded spray program will eradicate the weevil.
Growers, processors and NMSU agricultural scientists also are teaming up to help with another commodity facing trouble-chile. Like many farmers and area residents, Vargas can't imagine a Mesilla Valley without the famous crop. "Chile belongs to us," he says, with a shake of his head.

Producers' worries stem from globalization and the North American Free Trade Agreement that have meant an influx of chile from across the border where labor is cheaper, says Rich Phillips of NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics and coordinator of the new Chile Pepper Task Force.

"There's concern that if chile production drops below a certain point here, then it would make sense for processors to locate closer to the source of raw materials in Mexico," Phillips says. "Chile producers in the Mesilla Valley want New Mexico to maintain its premier reputation in chile pepper production."

The task force was formed in December 1998 at the producers' initiative and has already garnered a $33,000 grant from the New Mexico Chile Commodity Commission to study best management practices. The project will focus on maximizing yields and profits.

Phillips says other projects that the task force is looking into include mechanical harvesting and drip irrigation for chile. He emphasizes that these projects are in addition to the valuable work being done by NMSU researchers Paul Bosland and Marisa Wall to develop improved chile varieties for New Mexico.

As the Mesilla Valley's agricultural industry develops, Libbin predicts more shifting from lower to higher value crops, continuing a 50-year trend. He sees particular promise in the valley's onion industry.

"We are the largest producer of the summer, non-storage onion." Experiment Station work to develop an onion for processing could help expand the market. Garlic also has possibilities.

Changes in other sectors of the agricultural industry are necessary, too. Libbin sees a need for more "vertical integration," meaning more industries that both support agricultural production and those that add value through packaging or processing before going to consumers.

Coppedge says, "It's ridiculous to me to ship chile to San Antonio or New York City and have them sell the salsa back to us."

With a smile, Libbin suggests some other tasty possibilities. "What about an ice creamery? And there's room for more candy manufacturing."