Chile River, Inc., is a busy place these days. Producer Jerry Franzoy has already shipped out some early green chile and semi trucks loaded with onions come and go constantly.
Franzoy is a hands-on operator, personally checking his harvested crop, as well as those still developing out in the field.
“The chile crop looks really good — it’s above average,” he says.
His grandson, Axten Franzoy, the fifth generation of farming Franzoys, explains, “The majority of our crops won’t be going out until about the August 5, and from then until probably the middle of October, the first freeze, we’ll be picking green chile.”
A tour of the Chile River onion shed shows an efficient packing and shipping operation for three different types of onions in high gear. “We do about 10,000 packages a day, probably about 9-13 loads a day,” Franzoy says. ‘We ship about a half a million packages a year out of this location.”
There have been some heavy rains in the southern part of the state, “But we’ve been very blessed, they’ve missed our area. We’ve had rains, but not enough to really shut us down. We’re having probably one of the best onion seasons we’ve had in 20 years.”
We hop into Franzoy’s mobile office and drive into the fields to check the chile. Across the road, Axten operates a tractor, prepping beds for next year’s crop. “That’s all drip tape we’ve taken out and are going to replace it this fall,” Franzoy says. “We do mostly drip irrigation — we get better quality and better efficiency, and more production with less fertilizer and less water.”
In crops with a small individual plant size, like chile and onions, drip irrigation is ideal, he says. It targets water directly to the plants’ root zone. “We inject a fertilizer in the water,” he says.
For the latest on southwest agriculture, please check out Southwest Farm Press Daily and receive the latest news right to your inbox.
The strong loyalty to Hatch brand chile has created an intense interest in the health of the chile crop. People are on the lookout for the first available chile, and word spreads fast about where and when to get it. Axten, who attends college in Ohio during the school year, says, “We don’t have any of their products up there. I think they (the distributors) stay more toward the Southwest and the West. Most of the demand’s here in this part of the country. But they are trying to expand.”
(Author’s opinion: People need to get a taste for it up in the Midwest. I remember many trips back home to New Mexico from Wisconsin and North Dakota, toting empty suitcases to be filled with Hatch green chile and tortillas on the return trip. They were green gold.)
Franzoy has about 200 acres of chile in production this year. “My grandfather was one of the first farmers to ship chile out of Hatch to California,” he says. ‘He first started in Silver City, and demand started growing. He began shipping red chile to California in about 1918-1919 and the early 1920s.”
They grow several different varieties of chile, Axten says, “We’ve found Arizona 88 and 1904 are very high yielding, more productive varieties. But for personal reasons we still grow some of the old NM heritage varieties.” These heritage types are interesting, he says, but don’t produce enough for a large scale operation like the Franzoy’s. A typical yield for an acre is about 12 tons to 16 tons, says Franzoy, although some can yield as high as 30 tons. That’s a lot of enchiladas!
The water season has been short, which has made the careful use of surface water of supreme importance. Axten says he’s grown up in a “generation where the dam hasn’t been as full — the water seasons are a lot shorter now.” With high salt levels in the aquifer, he and the elder Franzoy say access to surface water is “a really big deal for crop health. EBID working with us in order to get that surface water is very helpful.”
“That early release was so important for vegetable growers in the Hatch valley,” Franzoy says, “Phil King (EBID engineering consultant) worked that out for us. For chile, it was very very positive. Before we get the water release, it’s very difficult because our pumps start pumping less and less. Our volume was down 30 percent on our pumps just before they made that release.”
That surface water helps push salts back down through the soils, which not only helps the fields, but the aquifer as well, Axten says. “You can tell the aquifer is replenishing when your wells start pumping better. Everything charges back up really quick.”
Franzoy says he hopes EBID will again make an early release for Hatch farmers. It’s a win win situation “because we take water right up to Percha dam — we don’t affect El Paso or Las Cruces farmers because we use the river, very little, maybe a quarter-mile.”
Axten describes the dynamics of timely irrigation: “In the hottest part of the year, we’re in a bind. When we get that surface water, it really helps us to spread out our water and keep all our crops from burning and being damaged by drought.” He says crops typically have only a one- or two-day window during which they must have water. “EBID worked really well with us, and the early release date really helped keep a lot of our crops from being damaged.”
Drip irrigation has been a useful tool in their crop management system, Axten says. “It’s still arguable as to which type of irrigation is better overall. But as far as our crops go, and how we have to spread our pumps around, if we were still completely flood irrigated during this drought we wouldn’t be able to have the volume that we do. We would have crops burning constantly — there is no way we could keep up with the flood irrigation system.”
He says the drip system has enabled them to “spread the water around — water it one day, just enough to keep it happy, then move to another crop, and then come right back to it another day. The extremely adaptive science and engineering has really helped our crops; yields have probably increased by 30 percent on average, especially in chile.”
Axten also manages a flood irrigated farm at Las Cruces. Comparing how irrigation is done there to how it’s done with drip is “just night and day,” he says. “Drip is ideal for chile; it’s where we’re moving in the future.”
The Franzoys are also going to try some mechanized chile picking this fall to see how it works out. The family has been innovative in their farming practices. “We’re planting three lines per 80 inch beds,” Franzoy says. “My son started this, and a lot of other farmers are following him. Normally, what they’ve been doing for years is 40 inches per line of chile.”
The men have a friendly competition going to see whose chile field produces the most. This year, in addition to onions and chile they’re growing corn, alfalfa, beardless wheat, cotton, and pinto beans.
“I was born on the farm,” Franzoy says, “and my dad was born on the farm. I was born probably 100 yards from the house where Dad was born.”
Axten is also interested in going into farming, but feels “it’s best to get a degree first and have that under my belt.” His grandfather teases him, “He’s got too much dirt under his fingernails!” Axten smiles: “It’s a good life, it’s a lot of fun, it’s in my blood.”