Soaring costs threaten farmers’ livelihoods and ways of life

Amaze a few shoppers outside an Albuquerque supermarket and you’ll find that everyone noticed the groceries were more expensive.

“Products by the pound in particular have increased,” says university student Laura Miramontes. She adds that food prices are a frequent topic of family conversation.

“Oh, my God, my father,” she said. “My dad always complains.” He supports a large family. Another customer, Estevan Romero, also has a family and says he’s changed what he buys.

“I guess – tone it down, stick to more beans and chili,” he says. “Instead of more expensive cuts of meat and stuff like that.”

New Mexico ranks 45th among states in median household income. Price increases have therefore hit hard here.

But high prices don’t mean a better deal for those growing the food.

On his farm outside Deming, Don Hartman loves peace. “Listen how quiet it is,” he said as he walked out of his house. “And the birds that sing.”

He changes crops every year, but in recent years he has planted produce such as onions, melons and the beloved New Mexico green chili on this roughly 500-acre farm in the Mimbres River Basin. .

But a tour of the farm shows just how tough times are. First, there are the fertilizer tanks connected to its drip irrigation system.

“They’re almost empty,” Hartman said. “I evaluated the prices trying to see what it would cost to top them up.”

The numbers aren’t pretty.

“A load of fertilizer is running right now – a semi load is about $16,800. And the same load last year was $6,000,” he said.

Then there is the tractor, which runs on diesel. He uses 15,000 gallons a year, buying untaxed fuel because he drives off-road farm vehicles.

“Right now, 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel is $66,750,” he said. “Last year it was $27,000.”

Its margins were already tight. Challenges include drought and labor shortages. It lost money last year for the first time since 1995.

But now the supply chain issues and the war in Eastern Europe drove fuel and fertilizer prices way up. And that forced Hartman to make some tough choices.

“We grew 150 acres of chili peppers,” he said, fields of tiny green sprouts. “I think we’re down to 115.”

He also grows fewer vegetables that must be harvested by hand, and more crops like cotton, which are mechanized. And it uses less fertilizer.

But he doesn’t know if the pressures will be enough to keep the farm afloat, or his neighbors’ farms either.

“Everyone is sweating right now,” he said. “Because we don’t know what’s going to happen. And we’re all trying to do the best we can – cut corners, cut costs – to survive it.”

Pecan producer Greg Daviet pictured on his farm near Las Cruces, NM

Some farmers do not have the option of reducing the area 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 pecans to have: around 10,000. he can do to save costs is to save his fertilizer.

“We have enormous volatility in our net income or net income in ordinary times,” he said. “And in extraordinary times when the price of our key inputs, fuel and fertilizer, doubles almost overnight, that can cut those margins to zero.”

The price farmers will get for crops is unlikely to reflect skyrocketing 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 see those food prices go up at the grocery store, it doesn’t necessarily mean farmers are really getting more money for their own produce,” she says.

Last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tweeted that for every dollar spent on food, only 14 cents goes to farmers. Farmers like Hartman complain that they don’t have much bargaining power with the big companies they sell to.

Additionally, Schechinger said farmers grow things like corn or soybeans get more help from the governmentreferring to “a huge disparity between these major staple crops and the agricultural subsidies they receive, and then specialty crops like fruits and vegetables and nuts.”

Jay Lillywhite, a professor of agricultural economics at New Mexico State University, said the future looks tough for those growing produce here.

“I suspect we’re going to lose farmers as these costs increase,” he said.

In addition to economic hardship, this could accelerate a national depopulation trend in rural areas, which would change the nature of a state like New Mexico.

“If we lose farmers, a lot of our crop in this state belongs to chili growers,” he said. “So it’s not just economic, but it’s also cultural.”

Don Hartman to Deming said if his farm failed he could find regular employment. But he certainly doesn’t want to.

“I could have gone anywhere. I could have done 100 other things,” he said. “But I chose to cultivate because that’s what I love.”

About Keneth T. Graves

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