One-on-One: Chile group leader hopes to inspire fellow millennials - Albuquerque Journal

One-on-One: Chile group leader hopes to inspire fellow millennials

Travis Day, right, talks to chile farmer Darren Gillis about the yield of Gillis’ red chile harvest and the concept of mechanical harvesting to offset the industry’s labor shortages. (Courtesy of Samantha Gillis)

The first official conference that Travis Day attended as a Sierra County commissioner left some of the other attendees confused.

Day was 24, and an outlier when it came to the average age in the room, so he was met with questions like, “Who are your parents?” and “Who are you here with?”

His response: “Just me. I promise people my age can do this.”

Day is on a political path, but for now he’s making a stop at the New Mexico Chile Association. He took over as executive director in November.

Now 27, Day has chile in his genes. His grandfather, Jose Covarrubias, came from Mexico and ended up buying out the farmer for whom he worked and starting his own operation. Four of Day’s aunts and uncles took over and now run what has become a thousand-acre farm in the Hatch area.

Day grew up on his parents’ 15-acre farm near Truth or Consequences, where the family grew primarily alfalfa for their cattle business.

“Agriculture runs really deep on both sides of my family,” he says. “It’s kind of all we know, to be honest with you.”

Day previously was natural resource director at the Sierra Soil & Water Conservation District as part of his continuing mission to “fight for our ranchers and farmers.” He wants to repair what he says is their poor image among the public.

“These are some of the top land stewards in our nation,” he says. “We want clean air, we want clean water.”

Here’s what else to know about Day: Getting married and having kids is on his bucket list, he plans to run for state land commissioner in about a decade and he “definitely” believes in ghosts.

“Whether that’s my ex-family members haunting me, I just don’t know,” he says. “I love ‘Ghost Hunters’ and ‘Ghost Adventures.’ Maybe watching those shows gets my mind going.”

What motivates you?

“It’s a push for me wanting to better myself. I run on goals. I’ve got things to accomplish, and that’s what I’m focused on. I was that way in high school … and I still do that.”

What are your goals?

“I want to get my name out there statewide. I want to continue to grow this industry, and then look at different options. State land commissioner is a goal long-term. I also sit as a Sierra County commissioner. For me, I know land management. That’s my background. I started with the soil and water district, where I was doing water infrastructure designs, ranch planning, project development as far as thinning, watershed management. My job really kind of moved into more of getting involved in the natural resources and agriculture issues and fighting for our ranchers and farmers. That kind of slowly transitioned into my position at the chile association, where I’m doing the same thing, just more industry specific.”

What do you do in your free time?

“I’m an outdoor guy. I like getting out, hiking. Of course, we have Elephant Butte Lake, so I enjoy spending my time there, getting up in the mountains. And spending time with family. I grew up with a very, very close family.”

Has your life involved a lot of chile?

“Oh, absolutely. Chile was in every meal. Pinto beans and homemade tortillas. Growing up in a Hispanic family, you never went hungry. Even if you were full, you were never full enough. I was fed very well when I was growing up.”

What’s a difficult thing you’ve had to go through?

“I was watching a softball game, watching one of my cousins play. The entire family was there, and we got a phone call that my 17-year-old cousin committed suicide. I was 19. Funerals are hard, and deaths are hard. If it’s an older family member, everyone knows the time is coming, but in this case, she was just starting out in life. It wasn’t just a difficult time for me, it was a difficult time for all of our family. All the thoughts that go through your head – ‘What could I have done? Is there a phone call, a conversation I could have had?’ But, again, as a family we all got through it. We all spent a lot of weeks straight together, just talking, we’re praying, just working through our emotions.”

How is New Mexico doing, chile-wise?

“There are some big issues that we, as an association, need to tackle. We’re jumping at it. Water availability, that’s a big one for our farmers. Labor shortages. We had labor issues before COVID-19, but when that hit, it really exacerbated the issue for us. Our processors, not just our farmers, are seeing labor problems. But we’re also looking at longer term solutions. Mechanical harvesting is now a thing for New Mexico. We’re working with some members who are developing a harvester that wouldn’t rely on the traditional picking standards. The Legislature is looking at more funding for the Office of the State Engineer for operations, management, water planning. Water is life in New Mexico, and that office needs to be fully funded.”

Do you have any pet peeves?

The biggest pet peeve that I have is (someone) not having dinner table manners. Talking on the cellphone while at the dinner table. Or just being on the cellphone whenever you’re involved in an in-person conversation. I’m a millennial. I like my cellphone, but there’s times not to be on it. It’s just something that drives me crazy.”

What do you offer as the youngest person in the room?

“I think I bring a voice of reason and a voice of new ideas. Historically, we’ve kind of seen the same names over and over again, and they have the same ideas and the same way of going about things. I think bringing new, fresh, younger people into politics or into any organization, you’re bringing ‘Let’s look at tech, let’s look at social media as ways of outreach.’ I understand that five years ago, so and so disagreed on an issue, but let’s come to a compromise.’ I hope this kind of inspires younger people to step up who want to make a difference. Step up and just take the initiative to make that change and make that leap.”

THE BASICS: Travis Lee Day, 27, born in Las Cruces; bachelor’s in agriculture with minor in conservation ecology, New Mexico State University, 2016; two dogs, Zoey, an English bulldog, and Charlie, a golden retriever.

POSITIONS: Executive director, New Mexico Chile Association, since November; Sierra Soil & Water Conservation District, natural resource director, 2016-2021, and natural resource technician, 2016.

OTHER: Sierra County commissioner, vice-chair, elected 2018; Spaceport America Regional Spaceport Tax District, current vice-chair, former chair; Sierra Vista Hospital Joint Powers Commission, chair; Sierra County Farm and Livestock Bureau, board member; New Mexico/Arizona Coalition of Counties for Stable and Economic Growth, board member; Bureau of Land Management Resource Advisory Council, member.

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