Roots of the Valley

By Gloria Vaquera, Photography by Damacio Bernal, Bill Faulkner and D&D Sports Photography

“Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful and
most notable employment of man.”
–George Washington.

I read a message once that said that we may need a doctor, a lawyer, an architect or an engineer at one point in our life. But we all need the farmer three times a day, every day, because we need to eat. It’s frightening to think that the day may come when we don’t have enough farmers. With the global population on the rise, food security could be a realistic threat in the near future. 

In farming, the business is often a family affair. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, of the 2.1 million farms in the U.S. in that year, 97% were family owned operations. In New Mexico, 97% of the state’s ranches and farms were run by families or family partnerships. However, in recent years, as parents look for ways to continue their agricultural legacy, their children’s interest in farming is dwindling. Unlike the steady salary of other jobs, agriculture cannot guarantee a farmer a paycheck. That insecurity is troubling for many young people entering the workforce. 

Agriculture is an entirely different beast than it was a few decades ago. Today’s agriculture regularly applies sophisticated technologies such as temperature and moisture sensors, aerial images, and GPS technology. These advancements in precision agriculture allow businesses to be more profitable, efficient, safer and environmentally friendly. Keeping pace with changing practices and incorporating developing technologies is vital in sustaining a profitable farming business. This is something that a younger generation can certainly identify with and adapt to more than an aging population. The average age of a farmer in 2012, according to the USDA, was 58 years old.   

However, the average age of Hispanic farm operators was slightly younger (57.1%) than that of the national average. And in comparison to the national average of 3%, New Mexico had the highest average (36%) of Hispanic farmers. Of the 2,184 farms throughout Doña Ana County, 1,350 were Hispanic operated with a total of 261,338 acres countywide. The number of Hispanic farmers in the U.S. in 2012 was 99,734 and from those there was $8.6 billion sold in agricultural products.  

The farming families we are featuring form part of the impressive statistics shared above. They have similar stories yet are different enough to merit telling them. They are stories that often started with one person who was a steward of the land and had a dream for a better life. They are proof that one individual’s hard work can transcend generations and affect countless people’s lives, in a countless number of ways.

Familia Covarrubias

I can’t think of a better way to start a brisk spring day than with a good cup of coffee, in good company while taking in the beautiful views of the farm valley. That’s exactly how three brothers, Armando Sr., Jose Jr. and Tony, start each morning as they discuss the business of the day for Covarrubias Farms in Arrey, NM.

Covarrubias Farms was built from the ground up by their late father, Mr. Jose Covarrubias, Sr. In 1969, with the help of his boss, Mr. Covarrubias purchased his first parcel of farmland; giving birth to what is today Covarrubias Farms. Since then, the farm continued to grow and even added a farm in Dell City, Texas where they have farmed up to 1,200 acres. Today, Covarrubias Farms produces premium green chile, alfalfa, corn and onion in the famous Hatch Valley and all is produced, processed and marketed direct from their 600-acre farm. 

They began processing and manufacturing red chili in the early 1970’s under Covarrubias Farms. However, Armando, Tony and Jose Jr. decided that it would be best to create a new company in order to separate the two businesses. It was in 2011, that they formed San Martin Enterprises, which currently processes red chile and sells it as pods, crushed and powdered. 

“It was a natural fit for me,” says Armando of his responsibilities. “When I was really little, my father had me out with him interpreting, selling, talking to people and peddling chile. The journey has been a true blessing.” Armando has a degree in finance and marketing from NMSU, and when his dad had a heart attack in 1980, Armando stepped up to help him with the farm. Today Armando’s role in the business is sales, PR and making sure their customers are happy. His wife of 33 years, Theresa, has also been involved from day one and Armando considers her his right hand. 

Although only Armando Jr. –or Junior as they call him– and his brother Omar are interested in the family business, each one of Armando and Theresa’s children have a college degree or are working towards one. Tanya has a degree in Education; Armando Jr. has a Master’s in Food Science; Omar is currently pursuing a degree in Ag Business; and Maribel will be receiving a degree in Fashion Merchandising this May. 

Junior has recently been commissioned by his father and uncles to serve as Administrator and Food Safety Director. He will be in charge of staying compliant with agricultural guidelines as well as keeping them abreast of the ever-changing FDA regulations. “My brothers and I agreed that his experience as a Food Safety Auditor is an invaluable asset to the organization,” proudly announces Armando. 

“As a kid I didn’t enjoy the farm very much, but as I got older I came to appreciate it. As a Food Safety Auditor for SCS Global Services I had the opportunity to visit larger farms around the U.S. and Canada and it made me want to come home and use my experience here,” Junior says excitedly. 

Jose and Tony, in contrast to Armando and Junior, have loved farming since they were very young; it’s always been their passion. Although they do contribute to the administrative portion, they would much rather perform hands-on type of work.

“Since I can remember, all I ever wanted was to be a farmer. I love being outdoors working the ground, the tractors and fabricating barns and equipment in the onion and chile plants,” Tony points out. His role is managing the actual farm and negotiating contracts with other farmers and contractors. Although he and his wife, Marisela, operated the farm in Dell City from its inception, his three children had unrelated plans. His daughter Alejandra has a Master’s degree in Social Work, son Joey is pursuing a degree in Electrical Engineering and their youngest Brianna is studying Speech Pathology at NMSU. “I’ve always told them they need to study what makes them happy,” confirms Tony.

Of the three, Jose Jr. is independent in that, although he does play a role in managing Covarrubias Farms, he and his wife Nayma also own and run J&N Farms. Because Jose, Jr. owns interest in the family businesses, depending on the crop he grows, it goes through either SME or Covarrubias Farms. “He grows it, we run it,” says Tony.

Jose Jr. and Nayma have been married for 23 years and have two daughters, Myra and Vanessa, and a son, Jose III. Vanessa and Jose III both enjoy working in the farm and the plant under their parent’s guidance. 

Nostalgically, Armando describes the times when, in elementary school, Mr. Covarrubias would pick them up from school. “That was our cue that we were going to work with him in the field. He would bring us burritos, snacks and a change of clothes. That’s just how life was and we were happy,” he recalls. 

Mr. and Mrs. Covarrubias always said, “The best inheritance you can leave your children is an education.”  And today, most of their nine children, and grandchildren, have or are pursuing a college education thanks to the guidance, encouragement and hard work their parents modeled.

Familia Jacques

Immediately after Andy graduated from Gadsden High School in 1980, his father, Pete Jacques, asked him, “So what are you going to do now?” Assuredly, he responded that he was going to farm. “You’re crazy, don’t get into it,” his father insisted.

But Andy, by his own admission, was stubborn and did it anyway. It’s been 37 years and Jacques Farm is going strong and thriving.

Mr. Jacques’s reluctance possibly came from the fact that he wasn’t a farmer himself. He was a truck driver who inherited farmland from his parents. Andy’s mother, Magdalena, came from a farming family as well and also inherited farmland from her parents. However, Mr. Jacques didn’t have the proper farming equipment for the two properties so he bartered with other farmers. He would haul manure during the winter and ensilage during the summer and they in turn would work the land. During this time, they only cultivated and harvested 34 acres of cotton.

“By 1999, I had about 275 acres and had been working full-time at EBID,” cites Andy. That same year he suffered a heart attack and his wife Christina urged him to choose between the farm and EBID, insisting that he couldn’t continue to do both. Because he had so much invested in the farm, that’s where he decided to stay. 

In only two years, by 2001, things were looking promising. Now with 500 acres and three employees, work was plentiful. In 2008, bigger equipment was necessary to minimize the workload and maximize volume, so they went from 4 row equipment to 8 row equipment to cover the 1,000 acres that they now farmed. However, a few years later as the economy began to sink and its effects rippled through the valley, Jacques Farm was not immune. One major blow was the price of diesel that skyrocketed from $1.50 to $4.00 per gallon. 

“There were times when I didn’t know if we would make it,” admits Andy. But by shifting and strategizing, they pulled through. Today, Jacques Farm cultivates 650 acres of cotton and alfalfa between La Union and La Mesa. They have four full-time employees and own thirteen tractors and two cotton pickers. Andy will never forget the guidance of two very important teachers, his neighbors Katsumi and Jodo Yabumoto. “They gave me infinite knowledge that has helped me along the way and a kick in the butt to keep going because, even at that time, it was the parents farming and the kids were all leaving,” he says. 

Andy is also thankful for the help and support he receives from his family. Christina, his wife of 28 years, has been as instrumental as she’s been supportive. Despite the fact that she’s a full-time teacher at Gadsden Middle School, she still finds time to do all the administrative duties as well as drive the tractors. It was her parents, Ramiro and Ester Quiroga, who taught her the meaning of hard work and the love for farming. “I grew up around the production of cotton with my dad and both my grandfathers. I also grew up around the tractors, but it was Andy that taught me how to work them. I find driving a tractor very relaxing,” she says contently.

Their children, from the oldest to the youngest, have also been vitally involved. 26 year-old Roland for example, has taken the lead in everything that has to do with precision agriculture and guidance systems. He understands the GPS systems as well as the computerized tractors. Roland also does about 80 to 90% of the herbicide and pesticide application and spraying. As if this wasn’t enough, he is also a full-time firefighter with Doña Ana County. “When I’m not working over there, I’m working at the farm. I pretty much have two full-time jobs,” muses Roland.

“She’s very helpful, especially now when we need the extra help, in running rows or raking hay,” says Christina about Marissa, their 23 year-old. “She is really interested in the hay business; she enjoys baling, raking and marketing.” This past December she graduated from NMSU with a degree in Agriculture and Extension Education and is contemplating pursuing a Master’s degree. “I love farming but the only hard thing is that it’s not a normal 9 to 5 job. Its non-stop and you can go 24 hours a day,” adds Marissa. 

Their youngest son, 20 year-old Isaac, is walking in Roland’s footsteps and currently works for the Alamogordo Fire Department. Isaac, like his older brother and sister, started helping on the farm when he was 15 years old. His plan is to retire as a firefighter and then carry on with the alfalfa business. One day he would also like to own a ranch where he could train horses and offer horseback riding for kids and young adults.  

Unlike the Jacques’s, however, few of the younger generations actually want to farm and Andy feels that the industry is in jeopardy of getting pushed out. He believes this is a side effect of rigorous certifications, strict regulations and legislation that hurts the farmer. For their part, because of the uncertainty in agriculture, Christina and Andy are happy that their children have a career outside the family farm, but still have the farm experience to fall back on and continue to contribute immensely.

Familia Peña

Isidro Pena, Sr. is the seed of this narrative which would not exist without his hard work, determination and desire to succeed. He was born in Mexico in such dire conditions that at the age of six years old he was out selling produce on his own. As a young man in 1957, he came to the United States as part of the Bracero Program where he cultivated and harvested land for others in New Mexico, Texas, and California. He was only here a few years before he returned to Mexico. In 1962, after realizing that if his dreams were to come to fruition it would have to be here, he made his way back to the area where it all began for him.  

Stahmann Farms was where his love for pecans blossomed. There he learned the skills necessary to nurture pecan trees from seedling to full grown fruit bearing trees. In 1975, with a bonus he received from his employer, he was able to lease four acres of land to start his own nursery. Mr. Pena didn’t have any equipment or even a tractor to work the land but he was ready and eager to start growing his own trees.

“I found a tractor at Archer’s Pecans in Hatch. It was small tractor and they were asking $1,500 for it. But I didn’t have the money, so I negotiated a deal with them to graft pecans in exchange for the tractor. It was the very first tractor that I owned and it was so small that I was able to haul it in the back of my pick-up,” he articulates.

For the next three years, he continued to work at Stahmann Farms. But in 1978, his very first crop yielded about $20,000, a little more than he made in two years working his full-time job. That didn’t come easy, however. Aside from working long shifts at the plant, he also worked weekends and any spare time he had in between. And because it takes about three years to get the first harvest, he worked the crop for those three years without revenue. In the end, it did pay off and after 18 years at Stahmann Farms, he was ready to move on and pursue his dream of working for himself. This was when Penas Pecan Nursery was born. 

With the money he made from the first harvest, he was able to lease more acreage. During this time, he also started handcrafting concrete tiles and subsequently started Casa Mexicana Tile. He indicates that the pecan nursery funded Casa Mexicana and the first year he only completed two or three tile installation jobs. When Mr. Pena brought in his brother, Jose, to help with Casa Mexicana that’s when it actually took off. “This really wasn't what I was interested in because I was just starting to see the fruits of my work in the pecan tree nursery,” he says. But even as Casa Mexicana took off and began to grow, he never stopped selling pecan trees.

His children, Jaime, Martha, Isidro, Jr., and Blanca have all, at one point or another, been involved in either Casa Mexicana or the farming. Junior, began working at the nursery at age ten along with his older brother Jaime. Three years ago, however, he came to work with his dad on a full-time basis. He is the only one that has taken interest in pursuing the farming portion of the business. Today he serves as Mr. Penas right hand man, learning all the tricks of the trade with the intention of one day, when his father is ready to retire, taking over the business. Jaime, on the other hand, worked with his father for twenty-five years before moving away in pursuit of a pilot’s license.

It has been over 39 years since Mr. Pena got started in the pecan business and today, Penas Pecans owns and cultivates approximately 130 acres. There are two elements to what Penas Pecans does; one is the nursery where he cultivates and harvests pecans tree to sell. The other is the orchards where they harvest the nut. Currently the orchards yield about 175,000 pounds of pecans and the nursery approximately 30,000 trees per year. 

In 2013, they added a new plant for Penas Pecans right next door to Casa Mexicana. The plant houses the equipment necessary to shell, clean and grade pecans all under one roof. Additionally there is ample space for a future retail store where they will sell their pecan products as well as a freezer capable of holding up to 20,000 pounds of pecans.

I asked Mr. Pena what he believes has made him successful and he believes that it has to do with knowing how to handle people and money. He is also a firm believer that common sense is vital to success. "A person can be very intelligent and a hard worker, but if they don't have common sense, those things won’t get them very far.”

Familia Acosta

When Calendario Acosta and his son Jose came to the U.S. from Mexico, they were in search of work; what they found was a thriving agricultural industry. Working and being a part of that industry taught Jose many things, seizing the opportunity was one of them. He got involved in sharecropping with local farmers and shortly after in the 1930s, he purchased his first piece of farmland. 

Victor, Jose’s son, remembers being out there as young as 6 years old working alongside his dad. “My very first job,” he laughs, “was carrying a water jug on hot summer days and taking it around to the workers so they can drink.” That’s where it started for Victor and as he grew older, the hard work mentality that his father cultivated in him became invaluable.

Aside from being a farmer, Jose was an entrepreneur by nature and also owned a bail bonds business and sold real estate. At one point, because the land had been leased to another farmer, Mr. Salinas, there was not much farming to do. So, Victor left agriculture to run the bail bonds business. Then, in the turbulent 1970’s during the drought, Mr. Salinas struggled to keep up with the farm. “I told my dad not to worry, that I would take care of the farm. I left the bail bonds business even though, when I was a young kid growing up, I hated working at the farm. I did not want to be out there,” chuckled Victor.

Victor says that, at the time, he wasn’t too keen on the idea of leaving because they had the market since they were the only bail bondsman in Las Cruces. “But when I returned to the farm, something happen. Farming grew on me and I came to enjoy it,” he admits. Although he sometimes wonders how different his life would have been, had he continued in the bail bonds industry, he says he is very content with how his life turned out. Victor confesses that farm life isn’t easy, but it’s a good life and he has enjoyed it.

Presently, the family cultivates about 75 acres of pecans and alfalfa, they have livestock and they continue to lease properties to other local farmers. However, Victor has done more than just run several businesses, he and his wife Velia have been married for 47 years and have three grown children; Veronica, Isaac and Abelardo. As the kids were growing up, they always kept them busy, if not on the farm, in sports. Isaac and Abelardo played basketball and Veronica was a cheerleader at their alma mater, Gadsden High School. 

Abelardo, or Lalo as he is known to most, remembers being out there working when he was in elementary. “Every summer my mom and her dad would take me, Isaac, Veronica and our cousins to chop weeds in my dad’s cotton fields or pick cantaloupes and watermelons. By middle school, I started working on the tractors,” says Lalo. Like his dad, he says that he hated it growing up. “I'm not sure why I didn’t like it. Looking back, I have so many great memories,” he says. Even though it’s the most stressful thing he’s ever been through, he tells me that he genuinely enjoys it. 

With the Acosta’s four generations deep in agriculture, Lalo is now taking over the farm. “He’s in charge, but I’m still after him. Now instead of him helping me, I ask him what he needs help with,” says Victor. They do not have any employees but instead, they hire for certain jobs and mainly depend on the family. Isaac, for instance, repairs all the machinery and has taken an interest in real estate; he's been working side by side with Victor and learning every aspect. Lalo’s stepsons, Ramon and Isaias Zepeda, and his daughter Elizabeth have been helping him for last three to four years. They usually pick up bales, help during the pecan harvest or work cattle. Even Velia, an elementary school counselor in Chaparral, goes out and helps maintain the farm. She proudly owns her own hoe and a 1969 Chevy pick-up that she drives out to the farm.

Victor is hopeful for the future of his farm with Lalo taking the reins. But as he looks out into his alfalfa field and reminisces about his farming days, he can’t help but be concerned about an aging workforce whose children, more often than not, aren’t willing to continue farming. “My fear,” says Victor “is that family farming is well on its way out.”

Spring 2017


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