When people outside New Mexico think about our agriculture, they usually envision large cattle and sheep ranches. However, the Rio Grande valley with its variety of crops is the life blood of our State, with the Mesilla valley being the most productive part of the Rio Grande’s 400 mile journey through New Mexico. The Mesilla valley stretches from just north of Hatch, the chile capitol of the world, to nearly the Texas state line 60 miles to the south.
Agriculture in the Mesilla valley predates by centuries the arrival of the Spaniards. Native Americans of several tribes raised corn, squash, and other vegetables in the fertile soil. Although they did not develop diversion dams for irrigation, the river provided water for their crops.
The era of modern agriculture in the valley began with the construction of flood control dams in the early 1900s. These dams not only prevent the seasonal flooding along the rio, but also store the water during the snow melt and summer monsoons for use throughout the growing seasons. Those dams begin with El Vado in the northern part of the state to Caballo just north of Hatch.
Agricultural products are, and always have been, quite varied in the valley. The first biggest “cash crop” was cotton to fulfill the worldwide demand. Cotton was king, not only in the southeastern U.S., but also here in the Mesilla valley. Until the 1960s, nearly half of the irrigated crop land was in cotton. While cotton is still and important crop, synthetic fabrics and the migration of the textile industries overseas decreased the demand.
About the same time, pecan orchards began to appear. With new varieties of pecans being developed that tolerated the New Mexico climate, more and more of the valley became pecan “forests” to satisfy an increasing demand. By the late 1970s, New Mexico was the second leading state in pecan production. Pecans are “thirsty”, requiring about five acre-feet of water to produce well, but drip irrigation systems have cut water use by two-thirds.
In the 1970s, the world outside New Mexico discovered our most famous crop, chile. The Rio Grande valley is ideal for growing this spicy, tasty pepper. Whether hot or mild, red or green, chile is on New Mexico tables more than any other vegetable. This crop not only is part of many of our signature dishes – enchiladas, chile rellanos, and (of course) green chile cheeseburgers – but it also provides thousands of jobs here in the valley.
Another noteworthy crop is alfalfa for western dairy herds. With the recent drought in the southwest, dry land farming of alfalfa became nearly impossible. The irrigated lands of the Mesilla Valley again filled an urgent demand, keeping hay prices in check and creating jobs. There is twice as many acres in alfalfa than a decade ago. If the drought ends, we will again pivot to meet New Mexico’s and the National needs.
The Mesilla Valley also provides “row crops” such as pumpkins, corn, peanuts, melons, lettuce, cabbage and onions. We are the major supplier of onions to Mexico. Small farming operations and family gardens provide a great variety of vegetables and fruits available at our Farmers Markets here in Las Cruces. We are, indeed, the breadbasket of the State.
Any discussion of agriculture would not be complete without acknowledging the contributions of New Mexico State University, whose very roots are in agriculture. This world-class institution has guided the growth and diversity of farming here in the valley. Most of the over 80 varieties of chile were developed by NMSU. The pecan industry owes its existence in research done here in our university.
So go to our Farmers Market, the University, and the Farm and Ranch Museum. Learn about our history, our rich heritage, and what makes our valley unique and really special. Take a ride up the valley and see the myriad of endeavors. And don’t forget to get a green chile cheeseburger at one of our local restaurants.