LAS CRUCES, N.M. (DTN) -- Ignorance can be bliss. But it can be frustrating for an intrepid journalist who pulls into a Las Cruces city park to see the famed Rio Grande River -- only to find nothing but sand and learn it would be at least another two weeks before water flows again -- temporarily.
DTN took a whirlwind tour of the Texas Panhandle and southeast New Mexico the week of May 16-20, talking to farmers about drought conditions. In New Mexico, farmers talked about how two decades of drought have decimated irrigation, while they also face labor challenges and growing competition from Mexican vegetables. New Mexico farmers also face labor pressures -- with those who can relying on the H-2A program -- and the same struggles with high input prices hitting farmers and ranchers across the country. The farmers were not near the state's several major wildfires, but smoke and high winds were hitting the region.
Farmers in southern New Mexico on the Rio Grande River will start to see water flow June 1 out of the upstream Elephant Butte Reservoir, about 90 miles north of Las Cruces. Still, farmers who grow products such as the famous Hatch chiles or pecans that fill the region will likely only see about 5 inches of water per acre off the river. Other parched farmers farther east along the Pecos River are no better off.
DOWN ON THE RIO GRANDE
When the Rio Grande River starts to flow, it will irrigate crops in areas such as Hatch, New Mexico, known for the famous Hatch green chiles. The reservoir and river rely on snowpack for about 75% of their recharge. The dam is only about 13.2% full, still slightly better than a year ago as a late recharge has come in during the last month from upstream. Elephant Butte will likely flow until early to mid-July then shut down again. The Rio Grande will then be dry again, unless there is a dramatic shift in weather.
It wasn't always like that, explained Shayne Franzoy, owner of Chile River Inc. farm north of Hatch, who raises winter onions and green chiles. Franzoy remembers when he would receive a three-acre feet of water allotment off the river. He will get about 5 inches per acre starting next week when the dam releases water.
"2003 was really the first year in my life we started to get less surface water," Franzoy said. "We haven't received a full allotment since then."
Franzoy is a fourth-generation farmer in the Hatch area whose great-grandfather settled in the area in 1916. Others in the family also farm in the same area of the valley. He began managing the farm in 1993 at the age of 20. He recalls how the situation has changed in the past three decades for farmers in the Rio Grande Valley.
"My first 10 years of farming were pretty good because we would start getting surface water in the middle of February and we would have water until the middle of October, so it pretty much covered the whole growing season," Franzoy said.
At that time, Franzoy said he seldom had to use groundwater irrigation except maybe through a dry spell in the winter.
"And so, I wish I would have appreciated that now more than I did because we haven't seen that in a long time."
He added, "The river's dry, and, you know, I wouldn't even call it a river now. It's more of a canal than a river. It's completely controlled by man. We open the gates and we close them."
The valley from Las Cruces to the Hatch area is diverse with irrigated onions, chiles and pecan orchards, along with hay, cotton and some wheat. Franzoy and other farmers in the valley now rely far more heavily on groundwater from a shallow aquifer. Water quality and quantity are suffering as a result, he said.
"The river does recharge it," he said. "As soon as the river starts flowing again, our water table comes up here. Without the river running, our water quality has been suffering."
Alfalfa production in the area has been scaled back because of the water demands, though producers are growing more cotton because of the current prices.
NEW MEXICO'S FARM BUREAU PRESIDENT
A good three-and-half hour drive east of Las Cruces -- across much of the state's badlands -- Craig Ogden, president of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, got his water May 19 from the Carlsbad Irrigation District (CID) near Loving, New Mexico, just south of Carlsbad. Ogden immediately went to work cranking open and moving water panels on his farm.
He's drawing less water as well, getting only about 10% of his normal allotment. That's caused him to idle about 100 of his 500 acres and abandon hay fields when he couldn't get a second round of water from CID last summer. As DTN was visiting, Ogden's son was planting cotton. "It just doesn't take as much water as hay does. That's why cotton makes a good rotation," Ogden said.
For hay, Ogden said he's probably losing up to two tons of production per acre because he's only able to water once rather than twice between cuttings. "We're not really getting that good, wet profile, but we're trying to extend the season as long as we can," he said. "So that affects our yields on hay and then, as the season goes on, we run into problems because we'll probably have to abandon our weaker stands of hay. Right now, we're trying to water everything."
Brantley Lake is a major storage lake in eastern New Mexico. As water evaporates in the lake, the salt content increases. "That's sort of a double whammy," Ogden said. He has had years in which the irrigation water covered the fields with a white crust.
The growing number of oilfields in the area also are major competitors for water as farmers keep selling them water rights. Ogden's farm has fracking wells nearly surrounding it, though he has kept the fracking sites off his farm so far. As the number of fracking wells in the area have grown, groundwater rights have been sold to them.
"So, I don't know what we're going to do because there's very little potable drinking water in this area," he said. "You hate to see any source of water that could be used for drinking water going to be used for fracking. But you get into private water rights, and they have that right."
New Mexico has some of the most extensive water rights laws in the country. The rights to water on land can be worth $8,000 an acre, Ogden said. "Water is worth more than the land. If you pull the water off the land, the land might be worth $500 to $1,000 an acre," he said.
New Mexico officials are working on a 50-year water plan to manage supplies and conservation that is expected to be released this summer. Summing up the challenge, Ogden said, "There's going to be an urban-ag divide that could come when water really gets shorter."
When asked about what moves could be made to help irrigators, Ogden said there are no "silver bullets" to manage water, but he, Franzoy and others also highlighted a need to cull out invasive salt cedars from the river basins. The trees are voracious consumers of water.
"Those salt cedars have an impact up and down the whole Pecos River," Ogden said.
FROM WATER TO LABOR
Ogden farms too far east to grow chiles and onions. The drive is too far for farmworkers to shift over from the Rio Grande area to the Pecos River valley. But Ogden said the other looming challenge is the struggle to find farm workers.
"It doesn't matter where in the U.S. you go, labor is the big complaint I hear, and it doesn't matter what industry you're in."
Near Hatch, Franzoy uses the H-2A program for workers. It's a time-consuming program to get housing inspected and have paperwork in at least 60 days ahead of time. And Franzoy said the farm often receives fewer workers than needed from the program.
"You've always got to be thinking ahead and preparing," Franzoy said. "There are definitely some struggles with it, but it's a necessity and we couldn't do without it." He added, "It's hard to predict when your crops are going to be ready to harvest 60 days in advance."
Prepping for the onion harvest set to start in early June, Franzoy said he now brings workers in early to do other prep work with sorting equipment and storage containers in the weeks leading up to harvest. Because Franzoy's onions go for retail sale, he said both his onions and chile peppers must be harvested by hand.
"We have to have a really pretty, good-looking onion without any mechanical damage or anything like that," he said.
Franzoy grows some cotton and used to plant more grain crops, but the harvest would conflict with the onions and chiles.
"With the water situation, we have found that leaving fields fallow is probably more beneficial to us," he said.
Because chiles and onions require a lot of hand labor, Ogden said he has friends in the Rio Grande Valley who are shifting away from those crops to mechanized crops such as cotton. One farmer, Ogden noted, "said he just can't find the labor and he doesn't want to be reliant on that anymore, so anything that requires more labor, he's pulling away from."
That's essentially Don Hartman's situation near Deming, New Mexico, about 50 miles west of Hatch. He farms about 500 acres, and adds, "I'm a definition of a small family farmer."
Hartman's farm has flipped crops various times over the decades. After moving from commodity crops to vegetables and watermelons, he's transitioning back, citing both tight labor challenges and high input costs. Hartman has cut back on chile peppers and onions and stopped growing watermelons altogether. He's increasing his acres of cotton and grain sorghum, as well as beardless wheat for hay.
Hartman is on the American Farm Bureau labor committee. Farm laborers who once may have been illegal but received legal status in the past now are largely aging out of the workforce. Tighter immigration enforcement has led to a generation gap among workers and far more reliance on the H-2A program. People coming across the border seeking asylum are not allowed to work in the U.S. while they are being held in detention.
"There are waves of people coming in and they aren't allowed to work," Hartman said. He added, "Why can't these people go to work? They want to go to work. And they (immigration officials) said they haven't been processed so they can't; so, it's politics."
Hartman added, "People say we live close to the border so we must have cheap labor. On the contrary, this is where Customs and Border Patrol are most concentrated. So, people move up further into the country and they will work for cash or whatever."
Making Hartman's point, this DTN editor was detoured twice on New Mexico highways for border checks in two days driving between Las Cruces and Carlsbad.
Hartman noted H-2A only helps at the farm, but the vegetable processors, the onion sheds, and the truck drivers are also seeing more labor challenges. The H-2A program might not work for those companies that need year-round labor instead of seasonal work.
"I can get it picked at the farm, but when a truckload of produce waits for 36 hours in a truck to get unloaded, we tie up our boxes or bins, and if they are at the plant waiting to be processed -- it's just they are having problems unloading because they don't have enough labor internally to process all of this stuff coming to them."
Even with higher commodity prices, Ogden agrees the input costs will bring down overall farm income this year.
"I just don't see farm income being higher this year. I don't see how, with all of the input costs being what they are, especially with the West with the shortage of water," he said.
Hartman offered a rundown, noting his fertilizer costs are 300% higher than a year ago. It was $266 a ton last year and right now it's $800 for the same product.
"Pricewise, cotton has become very favorable lately," he said. "Last year was really good with prices, and we were at that $266 fertilizer to make that crop. Now, we're sitting at $1.25 (a pound) for cotton, but we've got $800 fertilizer we're putting on it. So, we've taken two steps forward and one back. But I can pick cotton with a machine and not have to worry about needing people to do it."
Hartman added, "I've been doing it on my own for 30-some years, but it's getting old. When you can't make a profit, it takes the vigor and fun out of it. Something's got to give."
To see a video of Craig Ogden, president of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, talk about irrigation water arriving on his farm near Loving, New Mexico, go to: https://www.dtnpf.com/…
To see a video of Shayne Franzoy, owner of Chile River Inc., near Hatch, New Mexico, talk about farming on the Rio Grande River and waiting for water to arrive, go to: https://www.dtnpf.com/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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