Drought continues to plague New Mexico onion growers

05/28/2014 04:11:00 PM
Jim Offner

Drought conditions, ranging from moderate to severe, continued to dominate New Mexico’s landscape and heightened concerns about the upcoming crop among some grower-shippers in primary production regions.

“We could use (rain) very badly,” said Brandon Barker, operations manager at Las Cruces, N.M.-based Barker Produce Inc.

The company has been tapping well water for necessary moisture.

That can bring extra costs that slice into profit margins, Barker said.

“That’s just a huge extra expense that we usually don’t get back unless there’s an unusually good market,” he said.

Desert Springs Produce, based in Arrey, N.M., has gone to work employing water-conserving irrigation practices, said Bill Coombs, salesman.

“Our goal has been to get to 100% drip irrigation, and we’re getting close to 80% on drip now – that’s been the Gillis’ focus,” he said of the Gillis family, which owns Desert Springs.

Arrey and Hatch, N.M., just 18 miles south, were in severe drought conditions in mid-May, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Las Cruces, which has received more precipitation, was listed as under moderate drought conditions.

“The water situation is a little better this year than last year, although we’re still definitely in a drought situation,” Barker said.

Jeff Brechler, a salesman and grower liaison with Deming, N.M.-based J&D Produce, said there likely would be enough water for this year’s onion crop to squeeze by.

“You need to be in the right areas, but so far, we’ve got enough water for the remainder of the crop,” he said.

Deming also was in a severe drought.

Some growers said the severity was overstated.

“Onions kind of like that weather; as long as you can irrigate them, you’re fine,” said Scott Adams, owner of Hatch-based Adams Produce Inc.

But there are risks, such as rising levels of salt, said Jay Hill, salesman with Hatch-based Shiloh Produce Inc.

“We were starting to see some salt develop in the south valley area,” he said, noting that his company handles onions from an area that includes the Hatch and Mesilla valleys, Deming and Las Cruces.

The crop was progressing well, thanks to irrigation.

“The first couple of years were really shockingly harsh. Irrigation has really helped,” he said.

Hatch-based grower Marty Franzoy said he has cut back on his crop due to dry conditions.

“I’ve had to cut back because of water and salt in the ground,” he said, noting that he has to make do with less canal water than he would want.

That leads to the high-salt problems, he said.

“They just don’t grow good and you get small size and you get thin stands,” he said.

Some growers are in better shape than others, Franzoy said.

“Deming has good water in their wells, but water tables are dropping,” he said. “We need to get some rain, but we’ve been here before.”

Nobody wants to deal with drought conditions, but growers in New Mexico have adapted, said TJ Runyan, owner of Las Cruces-based Mesilla Valley Produce.

“We’re hoping, obviously, this year, for better things,” he said. “They’re predicting an El Niño year, and hopefully the rain skirts north of us into the mountains. El Niño generally means a strong monsoon.”

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