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Crowds haul away onions left out for cows near Las Cruces

LAS CRUCES – Facebook posts about piles of onions in the desert west of Las Cruces gained steam in recent days, sparking headaches for a local rancher and the owners of a local onion-processing shed.

Last week, Barker Produce dumped 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of culled onions for a rancher to use as feed for cattle. The public got word of the onions and began helping themselves. By Tuesday, the pile had been removed, but a small herd of cattled grazed on the leftover onions. (Josh Bachman/Las Cruces Sun-News)

At issue is that a social-media commenter who stumbled across the piles of onions – an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of them – put out a call encouraging area residents to go to the desert to get a free sack of the vegetables. The post gained a lot of traction.

The commenter assumed – incorrectly – that the onions were unwanted and had been dumped as waste.

Rancher James Montoya told the Sun-News that the onions were indeed his after he’d requested them from a local onion shed. Montoya had them hauled to a parcel of leased acreage that’s part of his ranch, known as the Home Ranch, as supplement feed for his cattle.

The parcel, just south of Interstate 10, is in a portion of desert that’s highly traveled by the public, given its proximity to Las Cruces. And Montoya assumed some people might stop and grab an onion or two.

But he never expected the frenzy that ensued as people streamed to the site. Some were hauling away onions by the pickup-full. Montoya said people taking the onions are essentially stealing.

“We didn’t put them out here for the public to have access to,” he said. “But the public came. They were leaving their trash, beer bottles.”

The onions were “culled” onions that didn’t meet grade requirements of a nearby onion packing plant, Barker Produce, 7750 N. Highway Frontage Road.

The culled onions can be used by ranchers and dairy farmers for animal feed.

Brandon Barker, vice president of Barker Produce, confirmed he fielded the call last week from Montoya who requested a load of culled onions. He estimated there were about 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of onions delivered to Montoya’s ranch.

“It does sound like a lot of onions to 99.99 percent of the world, but to the onion industry, it’s a small amount,” he said. “At our facility – just the one facility in Las Cruces – every day we pack close to 1 million pounds of onions.”

With an ongoing drought that’s left desert land sparse on vegetation this year, Montoya said the onions provided some moisture, as well as calories, to the cattle’s diet. There are 137 cows and 13 bulls grazing the acreage.

But Montoya said the onions are part of a mix of feeds, including hay, that the cattle are accessing. Other times during the year, he’ll feed them chile byproduct and cotton byproduct, if it’s available.

Montoya said the culled onions were free to him; he simply had to pay the shipping costs.

Because of the intense traffic the onions were generating, Montoya said he was worried about possible liabilities that could arise. So, on Monday, he had them scooped up and hauled to a different, undisclosed location – this time behind a fence and gate. His cattle will still be eating them, but the public won’t have access.

“We’d be more than happy to help them,” he said.

The onion harvest has been ramping up for the past two weeks in Doña Ana County.

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