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Las Cruces Agriculture Industry Hit By Loss of Labor And Other COVID Impacts



Saddle Back Ranch isn’t just a milk farm for Ryan Parks—it’s his family’s entire way of life.

“It’s not for the faint hearted,” Parks said. “It's a great thing. I mean, what would we do without agriculture?”

It’s a question that’s been in the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic, where, here in Las Cruces, Saddle Back Ranch had to delay expansion plans.

“We were actually gearing up, we wanted to double our herd size and get more serious just before COVID-19 struck,” Parks said. “We work strictly with Jersey cows, and Jersey cows have a superior milk. It's a little more nutritious and it's easier to digest, but Jersey cows are also ideal family milk cows. When the COVID-19 thing hit Jersey cows became somewhat scarce, and expensive. And we were just geared up, ready to do that and we haven’t been able to.”

The ranch has gotten creative, offering a cowboy action shooting experience to bring in extra funds.

New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte says many have been getting creative. He’s seen more ranches and farms marketing directly to the general public.

“New Mexico's primarily been a state that…didn't market direct, only about 6% of our producers directly marketed to consumers,” Witte said. “Now we've got farmers and ranchers both looking at direct sales to the consumer. Some of them are having quite a bit of success. I think that's going to be a dynamic shift you'll see more of in the future.”

Another problem Witte says the industry is facing is a lack of labor. It’s an impact Lujan Farms has felt deeply. For over half a century, the Las Cruces farm has harvested chile, but co-owner Lucinda Lujan says production has slowed down.

“COVID has hit all chile farmers hard. Now that the border is closed, we're having a lot of problems, lack of labor,” Lujan said. “I had some ladies that would come every year to help with our peel and pack, where we roast it, peel it and pack it for people, and they cannot cross.”

The farm has had to remove produce from inside its store and has not been able to move the same number of orders as in previous years. The good news is customer demand has stayed high even through the pandemic.

“We were kind of worried. I know that this has really impacted people’s incomes as well,” Lujan said. “Yesterday our parking lot was full, but everybody kind of stayed separated.”

No matter what’s being harvested, both of these agricultural industry players have one thing in common. Both are family owned businesses working hard to navigate the pandemic.  And if there’s a silver lining, Witte says it’s a growing understanding of that work on the part of the consumer.

“We have an agriculture industry that's really dynamic and diverse,” Witte said. “And, you know, we're top-flight. We’ve got the best farmers and ranchers in the world. You can take a seed, you can take water, you can grow it into chili… that’s just one example of the many things that we produce in New Mexico. And people are starting to understand that and appreciate that.”