HATCH VALLEY – The Gillis family has grown crops here for over 100 years – through the Great Depression and World War II.
But as Dale Gillis gazed over onion fields ready for harvest amid plummeting demand and scarce labor he called the challenges of COVID-19 a “whole new ballgame.”
“Right now there’s a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “Once you put the seed in the ground you got to hope everything else falls into place.”
Gillis is one of many farmers across the state, both large and small, grappling with a variety of issues as COVID-19 disrupts the daily life of the citizens, businesses and workers they depend on. Plummeting demand, a lack of labor and factory shutdowns combined with falling profits leave them facing an uncertain future that threatens their very livelihood as the virus shows no sign of stopping. At the same time, federal aid earmarked for individual farmers and ranchers has stalled.
“Our producers are resilient, but man it’s a tough time for everybody,” said Jeff Witte, Cabinet secretary of New Mexico’s Department of Agriculture. “There is a difference between what the consumer is seeing and what the producer is seeing.”
Much of the effects of COVID-19 on farming began when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a public health order that banned in-house dining at restaurants and shuttered other businesses deemed nonessential. That order, in conjunction with COVID-19 worries, set up a domino effect on farmers that many say has cut into almost every aspect of their business.
Labor and demand
With the onion harvest two weeks away, Gillis hopes he has the workers to pull it from the ground.
“We’re going to be very, very, short on labor,” Gillis said.
Machines can suffice for his alfalfa and corn silage but the onions and chile – those crops next in line and most profitable – need to be handpicked.
Gillis said he is scrambling to get his workers off unemployment and back into the field. Meanwhile, the 250 seasonal workers he depends on are a question mark as concerns about the virus linger.
Usually Gillis has a list a page and a half long of people who have signed up to work. As it stands this year he has only half a page filled. “They’re a little scared,” he said.
Gillis said he sells more than a million bags of onions nationwide, but restaurant shutdowns have caused a ripple effect far beyond the New Mexican border.
“Our deal is not New Mexico, our deal is everybody,” he said.
Gillis said onion farmers in South Texas laid waste to 25% of their onion crop due to low demand. He hopes the tide turns for him.
“The scary part is if we don’t get our crop out … We’ll be gone – you won’t survive it,” Gillis said.
Gillis looks to the governor’s pending decision to reopen businesses, and if those customers roll in, as a deciding factor in his farm’s fate. Gillis said he understands the worries of spreading the virus. But as a fourth-generation farmer with his livelihood on the line, he doesn’t have many options.
“Nobody knows the right decision to make,” he said. “I know it’s bad. But us farmers, that’s the food on the table, the food you eat.”
Sergio Grajeda, a ranch and store owner in Hatch, said he has seen a 50% decrease in business and demand for the chile he grows since the shutdowns. Although he only depends on a fraction of the workforce, Grajeda worries the effects on onion farmers will trickle down to him.
“I’m very concerned,” he said. “Just think about this, I’m a small rancher and I’m feeling it … Imagine the bigger rancher.”
Unlike Gillis, Grajeda survives solely on the local economy of New Mexico. With green chile season fast approaching, he worries what could happen to his farm if things don’t get up and running again.
“If there’s no demand, I have no clients. Economically, it’s terrible for me,” he said.
Grajeda said he feels conflicted about the governor’s orders to shut down as virus cases and the death toll continues to mount statewide.
“It’s a little weird,” he said. “Because if we haven’t suppressed the virus, how do we know we are doing the right thing.”
John Clayshulte, the owner of a large pecan farm in Mesilla, said his entire crop from last year is still in the freezer. And when it comes to pecan farmers in the area, that applies to “pretty much everybody.”
“It’s really abnormally slow,” he said. “I think the industry as a whole is storing more than they usually do.”
Depending largely on restaurants, groceries and candy shops – many of which have closed – he said they have seen more than a 50% drop in business. Buyers who would often buy truckloads are only purchasing a pallet or less.
In terms of getting back up to speed, Clayshulte said the risk is greater for him and his brother, a partner in the farm, as their product is a luxury good.
“You need bread, you need grain, you need some vegetables,” he said. “We produce a luxury item, that’s a fact. They’re not something people have to have. We got to bear that in mind.”
Although Clayshulte has not had to raise prices or adjust operations, he worries about the future if things remain this way.
“For us, in our personal opinion, it’s a big unknown. It’s something we’ve never had to deal with in our lifetime,” he said.
Meat market uncertainty
Local ranchers in the meat industry are also being challenged as COVID-19 infections and shutdowns at some of the nation’s largest processing plants lead to overcrowded feedlots and stalled operations closer to home.
“It takes us a long time to produce these animals,” said Casey Spradley, a fourth-generation rancher in Sandoval County. “Now we’re just throwing everything out there and hoping there will be solid ground to stand on later.”
Spradley said she carefully plans when and where the cows graze to prevent overgrazing. Her operation, like many ranches in New Mexico, couldn’t support calves through the winter if the feed lots remain full.
To adjust, Spradley is planning on turning bulls out later than usual. She knows of pork producers that have completely stopped breeding animals because of the backup.
The farmer believes this could serve as a lesson to be learned for the state, which would benefit from smaller, regional meat processing facilities.
“Then if one went down, it wouldn’t do so much damage,” she said. “We have facilities in New Mexico that process custom order meats, but the regulations are such that we can’t just sell someone hamburger from our freezer.”
“This is an opportunity to look at agriculture from an economic development standpoint, to increase our ability to process and distribute locally.”
Thinking of solutions, Spradley said reinstating a state meat inspection program could also give New Mexico more control over the supply.
NMDA officials believe local is what the people want and they should have it.
“Everyone is looking for more local sources. They want food closest to the source,” Witte, the state agriculture secretary, said. “We have really good farmers in our state, and they have really big hearts. I think people are more appreciative of the work our producers do.”
‘We don’t have a choice’
It’s not just the farmers and ranchers the virus has impacted, but seasonal and migrant workers who labor in their fields day in and day out.
On Thursday afternoon, dozens walked the rows of the chile field, digging hoes into the earth gingerly for weeds. All of them, some as old as 79, wear masks as midday temperatures near 100 degrees.
One of the workers, Gabriel Salazar, said his family’s livelihood has been tied to the Hatch Valley for decades. But their numbers have dwindled since COVID-19 hit.
“Me and my family have been doing this work forever,” he said.
In general, Salazar said the coronavirus has depleted the local workforce – already hammered by immigration enforcement – with infection concerns and lowered wages from decreased demand of chile, lettuce, pecans and other goods.
“They’re worried,” Salazar said, looking at the workers around him. “I’m afraid to take the virus to my kids, afraid one of my coworkers could have the virus.”
Where usually 100 laborers would work the various fields, six days a week from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., Salazar and around 50 others do a job that will take twice as long and pay half as much.
A father of seven, Salazar said the household income has also taken a hit since his wife, who used to work the fields, has to stay home with the children because schools shut down.
“You used to see a lot of women here working,” he said.
Some have found relief through their stimulus check. Many have not.
“A lot of us are still waiting for that check,” he said.
Salazar said that as time goes on, the situation gets worse as more and more workers are “afraid to leave the house” due to the virus. He said a large part of those fears stem from a COVID-19 outbreak in Juárez where many coworkers live and travel from.
“It’s hard,” Salazar said. “We’re here to work because we have to work. … We don’t have a choice.”