There was a time in our area when Las Cruces and Mesillero men, women, and children spent hours on back-breaking work picking cotton, and the route of the Rio Grande wove its course in a very different way. Whole families lived in tiny jacals (mud huts), and there was not a single concern about chemicals in the fields. During that time family members were expected to stay on the farm their entire life. With the renewed interest in wholesome food and eating locally, we now see more generations who stay on the family farm by choice.
Emma Jean Cervantes is a third-generation family member working in agriculture. She and her two children, Dino and Kristina, manage Cervantes Enterprises’ 1,500-acre farm. She is most known for creating a Louisiana hot sauce, a sauce that has earned her the nickname ‘Queen of Cayenne.’ As an entrepreneur, marketing the sauce came naturally to Emma Jean once she found she was good at making it, and she now ships the tasty concoction across the U.S. by train.
“I have seen a lot of changes in agriculture over the years, but the one thing that has not faltered is family legacy and values in agriculture,” she says.
It seems the tie that brings together agriculture, family, and entrepreneurship remains constant. As the three merge, a force is created that raises food from the fields, moves water from the river, and changes lives. That is southern New Mexico—a legend that intertwines the past, present, and future in a powerful way.
Bob Porter is no stranger to agriculture—he spent his entire life around it.
He was born in 1929 in the middle of the Great Depression on a dryland farm. When he was a year old, he and his family moved from the Panhandle of Texas to Las Cruces, where his dad was a farm laborer. It wasn’t long before his dad bought the Sage Farm near Salem, and it was there the family lived in a jacal, working their 45 acres of land.
Obtaining water for the fields was not an easy task. Water for irrigation was delivered from the canal at a checkpoint about ¾ of a mile away. The private ditch that delivered the water was small and overgrown with weeds, and it passed through the neighbors’ fields. Because the ditch was all dirt, gophers would often dig around or through it causing major washouts that required a cut-off of water in order to repair. Once the water did arrive, laborers used canvas tarps to gather the water and shoveled openings in the fields to irrigate; a very difficult chore because the land was unlevel.
“Now days there are cement ditches and permanent checks and ditch boxes that are opened and closed,” Bob says. “There is laser-leveling, which makes irrigation much easier.”
The development of river levees along the Rio Grande River, along with flood control dams on most of the major arroyos, are two major projects that now keep the river in its channel and avoid flooding of farmland, as well as other areas of the valley.
“If the dams had never been built, agriculture would not have become what it is,” says Bob, who graduated from the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (what is now New Mexico State University). “The building of Elephant Butte Dam in 1916 was really the birth of agriculture in our area. I think that is the most important and critical event that will ever happen to Hatch and the Mesilla Valley.”
When Bob graduated, he went into agriculture, starting with the Bracero Program, a program that imported temporary contract laborers from Mexico to the U.S. Bob concluded his career by spending 14 years as the CEO of the State of New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.
Through all the water changes, field creations, modernization, and labor changes, one of the biggest changes Bob has seen since he first began working in the field is mechanization.
“My dad used a two-bladed ax to cut through brush in the Bosque and leveled the ground using horses,” Bob says of a time when work required a different kind of labor. “We went from handpicking to mechanization. The equipment is so much better and so much more efficient than it used to be. Because of that we have seen a transition from smaller farms to much larger farms, and the development potential of the land has caused the prices of farmland to skyrocket.”
Jeff Witte, Secretary of Agriculture for the State of New Mexico, grew up on a ranch and has worked in the agriculture field his entire career. What sticks out the most following his years of experience? The current position of agriculture in the state represents a local impact as well as a worldly impact.
“Americans have the safest food supply,” Jeff says. “Food safety has become a super priority in the last eight to ten years, and food safety is really what the world is wanting.”
And the food safety isn’t coming from just the government standards; it is coming from industry standards. Part of the shift in food safety, and the focus on it, comes from a more modern society…a society that gains mass information from the Internet and social media, and one that spreads the positive outcomes of eating organic.
“People are much more aware of what is going on, and that is a good thing. When there is a recall, that recall is widespread because of social media, and that’s okay,” he says.
Because of the newfound awareness, other countries are also able to participate in the development of home-grown food.
“We opened China to the pecan industry,” says Jeff, who often travels worldwide to discuss New Mexico’s agriculture industry. “When we first started there, they knew a pecan was a nut but they didn’t have a name for it.”
During one trip to Korea, Jeff noticed a pecan pie in the window of a bakery, but the pie was labeled as a walnut pie. The name might have been wrong, but the implication for extreme food production growth and exporting was spot on.
“This is an exciting time. There are going to be a lot of opportunities to sell and market our food to the world, and those who are ready will do well.”
To Jeff, being ready means moving into a more risk management position instead of just focusing on production. How are the farming, dairy, and ranching industries going to keep up? The younger generations are starting to step in.
“I’ve seen a lot more kids come into the university ready to return to the family farm when they are done,” Jeff says of the school that serves as more than a local university, but also a statewide and international research facility with partnerships all over the world.
Jeff’s family is also actively involved in agriculture. His son Jeremy, 19, is a student at NMSU and the state 4-H president. Daughter Jennifer, 13, attends Vista Middle School and is involved in 4-H where Jeff’s wife, Janet, is a leader.
To a man who has seen food production and safety adapt over the years, what agriculture position is taking New Mexico by storm? Small farms and facilities with a focus on quality are stepping up to leave a name for themselves and New Mexico.
“We have the largest cheese-making facility in the world right in Clovis, an $80 million greenhouse industry that ships plants all over the world, the largest pecan production in the world, and vineyards that are destinations not just stops. Each of these businesses has a vision, and that vision is making an impact on agriculture in New Mexico.”
Emily Calhoun, 27, graduated from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, with a degree in Anthropology and International Relations, and a desire to travel around the world. She thought she would be working on issues very different from the ones she experienced growing up on a farm working alongside her dad and mom, Sam and Diane.
“I had always known at some point I would return and be part of my family’s legacy,” she says. “Little by little I started staying in the valley more and more when I would come home. Now I am here for good.”
Emily staying in the area didn’t just help her family, it guaranteed a continuation of the family’s legacy. Her involvement is changing the face of agriculture.
“As a younger generation woman involved in agriculture I believe we are becoming better stewards of the land.”
To Emily, being a steward of the land means incorporating new technology while honoring the old ways of doing things.
“Our farmland is disappearing, although that might make us a little more efficient with our land use,” she says, noting one of the major changes she sees is with water use and how farmers are moving into a drip system in their fields. “We are trying to be as efficient as possible with whatever resources we have.”
Along with being efficient, Emily is also being creative, joining a movement that is spreading across the nation: farm-to-table, which focuses on producing food locally and delivering that food to local consumers through businesses, restaurants, and farmers’ markets. The movement, embraced by the younger generations like Emily, is credited for organic farming initiatives, sustainable agriculture, and community-supported agriculture.
“When I talked to my dad about coming back to work on the farm, I told him I wanted to do something different,” says Emily, who manages the family’s pecan tree nursery and also grows flowers for Floriography (www.floriographynm.com), a business she started to support agriculture in the area and build the farm-to-table initiative in the community.
“I believe everyone should have flowers in their lives, and as a fourth-generation farmer in the Mesilla Valley, I believe this is the place for a local option. I have been passionate about finding a sustainable and conscientious alternative to share the beauty of cut flowers with the community.”
To Emily, it’s an exciting time to be a part of the younger generation in the Mesilla Valley and southern New Mexico, and it’s an important time.
“I hope there will be more opportunities for the younger generation to get involved. We need to maintain this land and this lifestyle.”
additional photos courtesy of NMDA and NMSU College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences
As many others in the area do, I believe in hard work and I believe in agriculture. That’s what makes agriculture in southern New Mexico what it is.”
– Emma Jean Cervantes
The past, present, and future of agriculture will always be intertwined, along with the men and women who believe in the power of the outcome.