Soaring costs threaten farming livelihoods — and ways of life
Ambush a few shoppers outside an Albuquerque supermarket and you'll find near everyone has noticed groceries are more expensive.
"Produce that's by the pound especially has gone up," says Laura Miramontes, a university student. She adds that food prices are a frequent topic of family conversation.
"Oh, my gosh, my dad," she says. "My dad's always complaining." He's supporting a big family. Another customer, Estevan Romero, also has a family and says he has changed what he buys.
"I guess — tone it down, stick to more beans and chile," he says. "Instead of the more expensive cuts of meat and stuff like that."
New Mexico ranks 45th in the states for median household income. So price rises hit hard here.
But high prices don't equate to a better deal for those growing the food.
On his farm outside Deming, Don Hartman loves the peace. "Listen to how quiet it is," he said, stepping outside his home. "And the birds singing."
He changes crops annually but in recent years he's planted produce including onions, melons and New Mexico's beloved green chile on this farm of about 500 acres in the Mimbres river basin.
But a tour around the farm shows how hard times are. First, there are the fertilizer tanks hooked up to his drip irrigation system.
"They're almost empty," Hartman said. "I've been pricing around trying to see what it's going to cost to refill them."
The numbers aren't pretty.
"A load of fertilizer right now is running — a semi load is about $16,800. And the same load last year was $6,000," he said.
Then there's the tractor, which runs on diesel. He gets through 15,000 gallons of that a year, buying untaxed fuel because he runs farm vehicles off-road.
"Right now 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel is $66,750," he said. "Last year, it was $27,000."
His margins were already tight. Challenges include drought and labor shortages. He lost money last year for the first time since 1995.
"We grew 150 acres of chile peppers," he said, of the fields of tiny green shoots. "I think we're down to 115."
He is also growing fewer vegetables which must be hand-harvested, and more crops like cotton, which are mechanized. And, he is using less fertilizer.
But he doesn't know if the squeezes will be enough to keep the farm afloat, or his neighbors' farms either.
"Everybody's sweating right now," he said. "Because we don't know what's going to happen. And we're all trying to do the best that we can — cut corners, cut costs — to survive it."
Some farmers don't have the option to reduce the acreage they plant. New Mexico grows a lot of pecans, and as farmer Greg Daviet near Las Cruces points out, his family decided long ago how many pecan trees to have: about 10,000. Now, the main thing he can do to cut costs is eke out his fertilizer.
"We have a tremendous volatility in our net income or net revenues in ordinary times," he said. "And in extraordinary times where the price of our primary inputs, fuel and fertilizer, double almost overnight, it can shrink those margins to zero."
The price the farmers will get for the crops will likely not reflect their soaring costs, said agricultural economist Anne Schechinger of the nonprofit the Environmental Working Group.
"The share of a food dollar that a farmer gets is so small that when we're seeing these prices of food go up in the grocery store, that doesn't necessarily mean farmers are really getting any more money for their own products," she said.
Last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tweeted that for every dollar spent on food, only 14 cents goes to farmers. Farmers like Hartman complain they don't really have bargaining power with the big companies they sell to.
Plus, Schechinger said farmers growing things like corn or soybeans get more government help, referring to, "a huge disparity between these major commodity crops and the farm subsidies they get, and then the specialty crops like fruits and vegetables and nuts."
Jay Lillywhite, a professor of agricultural economics at New Mexico State University, said the future looks difficult for those growing produce here.
"I suspect that we will lose some farmers, because those costs are going up," he said.
As well as economic hardship, that could accelerate a nationwide trend of depopulation in rural areas, which would change the nature of a state like New Mexico.
"If we lose farmers, a lot of our culture in this state is the chile growers," he said. "So it's not just economics, but it's also cultural."
Don Hartman in Deming said if his farm fails, he could get a regular job. But he certainly doesn't want to.
"I could have went anywhere. I could have done 100 other things," he said. "But I chose to farm because that's what I love."