Farm and Ranching Industry Loved as much as New Mexico Green Chile
By The Garrity Group
The Farm and Ranching industry is one of the most favored industries and institutions in New Mexico. According to the 2020 Garrity Perception Survey (GPS), 77% of New Mexico residents favor the industry with 46% of that group giving it a “very favorable” rating on a five-point scale. Among the 17 industries surveyed, the Farm and Ranching Industry is the second most favorable slightly behind Small Business. The scientific survey among New Mexico residents was conducted in late January 2020.
This episode features New Mexico Cabinet Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte.
Tom Garrity [00:00:16] According to the Garrity Perceptions Survey, New Mexico’s farm and ranch industry is among the most favored in New Mexico. Seventy seven percent of New Mexico residents have a favorable impression of the farm and ranch industry. New Mexico is known for its green chile dairy products, pistachios, pecans and more. This is Tom Garrity with the Garrity Group Public Relations. Joining me today to provide more insight about the farm and ranch industry is the state of New Mexico. Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte. Welcome, Secretary Witte, and thank you for your time today.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:00:49] Thank you, Tom, and happy to be here.
Tom Garrity [00:00:53] Before we jump into the 2020 G.P.S. findings, we be able to provide our viewers and listeners a little bit more insight about your background and the path to become the state’s top advocate for the agriculture industry.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:01:07] Sure. You know, I grew up on a ranch between Santa Fe and Las Vegas. It was a rental that my grandfather homesteaded back in 1921. It provided a great foundation for what I do today, although I can tell you this is not what I ever intended to do. I attended New Mexico State University for the sole purpose of becoming an agricultural banker. And one of my professors at the end of my bachelor’s degree, he told me that you would be a terrible banker. You need to go to grad school. So that’s what I did after grad school. I worked for the university as a research specialist for another year, trying to get I guess we all try to find ourselves that we get through with university. We never want to grow up. And then the dean of the college called me and said, hey, there’s an opening at Farm Bureau. So Farm was your to be their government relations person. And I said, look, I don’t even like politics or politicians. Why would I do that? Well, you need to go do that. So I just because I had so much respect for the dean, I went and interviewed with him. And it took them about four and a half months to convince me to try it. And once I got to Santa Fe, I found out that politicians and politics. That’s a TV phenomenon. The people that are involved in the political arena are people, and they’re all about solving problems. And that really kind of, you know, made an impression. I’m so my intent was to stay for six months, get him through the legislative session. I say for seven and a half years. Took a little break in between there. Governor Caruthers asked me to finish out the term of the State Public Service Commission. Back then, it was an appointed by the governor. Well, that really was 27 years old at the time. It really gave me a taste of being a decision maker. And I figured out that I liked decision making better than I like influencing. So I went back to the Farm Bureau after that little step and then the position of the deputy director, assistant deputy secretary position came up in the Department of Agriculture. And they I was convinced to apply. And that was in 1994. I came to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture as the number two person. And since then, it’s been all about, you know, creating opportunities for the young, the next generation to be in agriculture. And in 2011, the secretary’s position came open. I was convinced to apply and was ultimately selected. But I can tell you, if you’re going to be a cabinet secretary, you want to be me. This is despite for me it’s the greatest job ever to be able to serve our citizens. But not only that, serve our farmers and ranchers, create those opportunities, hopefully. That’s what I hope to do is at the end of the day, is create opportunities for the next generation.
Tom Garrity [00:04:05] I would think that when there’s, you know, if cabinet secretaries, if you have your pick, you know, there’s probably a handful of them that I think would go very fast. You know, economic development, tourism, agriculture, not necessarily the top three, I would know to any of the other cabinet secretaries there. It’s a tough job.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:04:24] From what I can see, that’s being a cabinet secretary is is a challenge. It didn’t matter which one you’re in. But there’s some that are that are I would say the challenge is more of a fun and opportunistic than others. I get to work with the greatest people in the state that farmers, ranchers, the people of the land. You know, we share the same values and the same vision. And it’s really fun.
Tom Garrity [00:04:46] We kind of hinted at that at the beginning, you know, when we were kind of alluding to the green chili, mozzarella cheese and other ag products. Can you explain a little bit more and provide some insight about the farm and ranch industry in New Mexico?
Secy Jeff Witte [00:04:59] You know, New Mexico is one of those states, and I’m giving a lot of my talks, I talk about we grow the place. By that I mean we grow everything that you can put on your plate. You look at the beef industry that we’ve got, Dairy Cheetah, it’s Crete’s, our cheese and powder. You’ve got that enormous amount of produce. And a lot of people don’t realize the amount of produce that we grow in the state. But, you know, we’re the number one summer onion producing state in the nation. We grow a lot of lettuce and cabbage. We are growing now hemp. We’ve expanded into the hemp production era. And, of course, our famous most famous crop is our chili production. And even though, you know, you see a lot of statistics, the chilies down and all that production still is pretty good. Everybody knows this for our sources and whatnot. But you’ve got cheese on the plate. You’ve got ice cream. And then you cannot forget our spirits and our you know, we’ve got a great wine and beer making industry that’s growing. And New Mexico is the oldest wine region in the United States. Lot of people don’t understand that. I think California or or back east might be older. New Mexico is the oldest wine region in the U.S. and we’ve got some great wineries that are really bringing that back.
Tom Garrity [00:06:19] That’s fantastic. Well, that’s true diversity as far as when you take a look at, you know, the many different products that are generated as a result of the entities under your purview. I think that’s fantastic. In fact, according to the 2020 Garrity Perception Survey, farm and ranch industry ranks second out of 17 industries and institutions, finishing only behind small business, which a lot of your businesses are small business, you know, in New Mexico.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:06:49] Yeah, good.
Tom Garrity [00:06:50] Oh, I was just curious why, in your opinion, is the farm and ranch industry so favorable?
Secy Jeff Witte [00:06:55] Well, it’s one of those things. New Mexico is a small business state. Our ranchers and our farmers are in every community in the state of New Mexico. Even Los Alamos, if you look at the census, has a small farming and ranching sector. Farmers markets and that kind of thing. We touch people. Agriculture touches people. And I think people are us are appreciating. And what Kobe did was really bring home the fact that local is really better. And our farmers and ranchers are involved in the community. They’re active in every community across the state of New Mexico. People see the good stewardship of the lands. There’s a lot of connection to the land of the open space and that kind of thing. And they see the farmers, ranchers help maintain that they appreciate the safest and most abundant and most affordable food in the world right here in the United States and New Mexico. Farmers, ranchers are part of that. And I think in your poll, and I think Gallup has just released a poll as well that validates that people appreciate the farming and ranching sector, that a lot of confidence in them. And it’s just as I said earlier, it’s the best people to work with.
Tom Garrity [00:08:07] The strongest support of the farm and ranch industry is actually found among those residents who live in the northwest and the eastern parts of the state. Can you break down the state forest geographically? For example, what parts of the state are more prone to ranching? Which parts? Well, you see more of the farming.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:08:23] You bet. So, you know, basically farming follows the water. And if you look at the river valleys, the Rio Grande Paco’s, that kind of those areas, you’re going to see the greatest farming sectors. You’re going to see farming in the Domina area. Luna, Chavez, Eddy, predominately. You’ve got dry land farming over in Korean Roosevelt, these side of the state, and then up in the sand, one county, Navajo Nappi, the Navajo Agricultural Production Industries, is probably it’s the largest farming area in the state. And they farm around 70, 80 thousand acres just within that one entity. Wow. More than Northern’s. The north central part has got a lot of very small traditional farms. Really important for our culture is to look at the farms in northern north central New Mexico, where we bought Taos, Santa Fe Mora in those counties, because they’re using our old the second the oldest governmental entities in New Mexico to a secure structure. And where they deliver that water and that did system ranching tends to follow the more open spaces because, you know, you don’t have the farming. Why did the availability of water so pretty much the north east part of the state is probably are host prime ranch land. And then pretty much any other sector that I haven’t mentioned so far is prone to ranching just because of the water issues. Water is probably the number one challenge we have in the state of New Mexico.
Tom Garrity [00:10:04] So with that in mind, with water being the biggest challenge, you know, how can farmer how can farmers and ranchers kind of get over that? Because, you know, there’s a perception that there is a limited supply of water. It’s plentiful and in certain areas, but not in others. What are some of those challenges that ranchers are facing in addition to water?
Secy Jeff Witte [00:10:27] Well, with you, you’ve got the ranching side of New Mexico, you know, we depend on what the good Lord makes send us in in rain and snow for. But there’s other challenges. The ranching sector has no one in Mexico, if you could have designed the state any, whereas as far as land ownership patterns you would have used, New Mexico has the pattern. If you look at a land ownership pattern map, you’ve got private land, state land, federal land and with the federal and you’ve got BLM, Bureau of Land Management, land and for service land, all scat and then state land all scattered among each other. We call it the checkerboard pattern. So it’s really provides a big challenge for a rancher to have an economic unit without having multiple land use mechanisms. And so then when you have multiple land ownership, you’re subject to every kind of just like dealing with many landlords.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:11:24] If pretend if your house was owned by a multitude of people and each room was controlled by a different entity, and you had to deal with a different set of rules and regulations for each room of your house. That’s what a rancher has to deal with typically in the state of New Mexico. That’s a challenge. They’ve overcome that challenge. But you still it’s a continual thing. There’s continual pressures by each of the agencies because of multiple use recreation and dangerous species and different things like that that ranchers are having to deal with. Farmers don’t necessarily have to deal with that because they are farmers is very good, but they’ve been able to farm. You’re in Dongyang, the county, for example. You’ve got farms that grow onions or lettuce on one or two acres and do it very well. And then you’ve got you go to the east side of the state and that they may have a couple hundred acres in this field. That compares to the thing. Places like Iowa or Kansas or Nebraska or anywhere is in the Midwest where you’re talking tens of thousands of acres in a field where you can get really economies. Mexico is a small farm, small grant state. So those are those are some of the challenges that we face. On top of just the normal hope for rain and hope for a good snowpack.
Tom Garrity [00:12:41] So we talked a little bit about the problems. What do the solutions look like for the respective industries?
Secy Jeff Witte [00:12:47] You know, the easy solution is make it rain and make it smell. That would be really good.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:12:54] But the other the other thing where we’re at a I call it the transition point in agriculture. Not only are we transitioning to that next generation, New Mexico’s the second oldest state in the nation. Agricultural producers are little, little over six years of age and older. But the transition is technological as well. And I don’t mean just pure techno alive. Technology based on like genetically modified plants, things like that. I’m talking about mechanization. The future of any agriculture is going to be the greener use of technology in what we’re doing, whether it’s farming and ranching in the thing is going to save our Chile sector in the state is going to be the creation of mechanical chili harvesters so that we can reach we’re having big issues right now with labor to pick green Chile. If we could develop and invest in research to develop that green Chile picking machine, maybe modify some of the genetics a little bit so that you get a plant that’s doing a uniform ripening of the fruit, that would help, too, with the mechanization in that and also in the farming and ranching sector, the use of drone technology, instead of driving around the pasture four to three days to look for your cattle. Use that drone to be able to pick up the your tag transmitter to know where your cattle are and really help. Maybe able to read the breeding cycles. Then there’s a number of things. Those are things that are going to transform the ranching and farming sector. You’ve got better uses of water. Right. We’re in a state that is investing a lot in the research and maybe the opportunity to use some of the produced water from oil and gas for certain agriculture sectors, maybe on the rains. And, you know, the proof is be in the putting down the road, but in a state with limited water, that could be the lifesaver to be able to use some of that kind of thing. So those are those are some of the things we’ve got to look at as we move forward.
Tom Garrity [00:15:11] Very interesting. Yeah. Know, when you look at using technology and but you’re on the on the chili picker. As far as I made in that particular process, I. Why? What do you think? Has it been researching? Development has been the number one reason why it hasn’t really kind of come to fruition yet.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:15:32] Yeah. So there’s a number of folks that are doing the research on the on the chili picker here has been the challenge. Chili tends to ripen in stages. And so you’ve got so in your hand picking, you can pick the first group that gets ripe and you’ve still got the second and third opportunity to come back in the field. What’s happened with these mechanical harvesters is when they go in and pick it more or less destroys the base plant for that first round. So you lose potentially two thirds of your next crop of their crops. So those are the things that they’re trying to refine. And then as you get into the chili picking, you pull that off and then it gets into the distending and further mechanization. I think they’re close. They’re getting closer all the time, but we’re just not quite there yet.
Tom Garrity [00:16:22] It’s a complicated process. I appreciate you taking us on a deeper dove on that in the economic environment. There’s a lot of discussion about value added agriculture. How viable is this particular market?
Secy Jeff Witte [00:16:36] So when we talk about solutions for the future, value added is going to be huge for the state of New Mexico. The last act census showed that only six percent of our producers direct marketing to the consumer intimacy. You did a research study several years ago that showed that we exported ninety seven percent of what we produce out of state or out of country. To add value. And then we reimported over four billion dollars back off of that product to eat to consumers in Mexico. There is a tremendous opportunity to expand our Value-Added production here in New Mexico. Things like we are the number one PyCon industry in the state than in the nation, New Mexico. That’s at the farm gate. We have virtually no value added production. We don’t. We send it to Georgia or Mexico or other play Texas to add that value, to get him the candies and things like that. So there’s an opportunity. Our beef producers, we have several small meat processing facilities in the state of New Mexico. Most of our beef goes to Texas or other places, too, for finishing and processing, and then we bring it back to it. We’re finding through COBA that there’s a lot of demand for locally grown beef. And so you’re seeing you’re going to see several new meat processing facilities come into the state of New Mexico. Those are just little examples of things that where I think we can enhance, we can take what we’re really good at. And the dairy folks really showed us how to do that. Mexico is a top 10 dairy state in the nation. We have the largest cheese plant in the world. We have one of the largest mozzarella type cheese plants in the world. Here in New Mexico, we’re taking we’re taking grass and alfalfa and water, inserting that into a cow, making it into milk, turning it into cheese and powder and potentially ice cream and other products. It’s not just. Creating alfalfa that’s taking it all the way to the finished product that gets on your sandwich or on your plate. That’s what we’ve got to do with the other sectors.
Tom Garrity [00:18:46] Great insight. So before we wrap up, I have two things, two questions for you. One. Explain a little bit about the background. We chatted a little bit about this for we started recording. And that’s a real scene, isn’t it?
Secy Jeff Witte [00:18:59] That’s that is I guess what I tell people is kind of called my backyard. I grew up on a ranch in northern New Mexico, and now I live in Las Cruces. And you just can’t take the ranch out of the boy. And I have a small pasture slate. I tell my wife we’re going to get some small cows. So there’s my little herd of her efforts. And that’s our that’s actually our baby calf that was born this year. And I’ve got a couple more coming in about a month.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:19:25] But it’s fun. That’s my point of relaxation. And it keeps me real. It also keeps me in the hay market and everything else, too.
Tom Garrity [00:19:36] So you’re also a user of the market that you’re representing as well?
Secy Jeff Witte [00:19:39] I am. And, you know, I just I just love it.
[00:19:42] My parents live around the corner and, you know, being lifetime ranchers, they love coming over here and looking at the cows and just participating as well.
Tom Garrity [00:19:52] That’s wonderful. So I have to ask you your response, the official state question, red or green?
Secy Jeff Witte [00:19:59] You know, it’s a it’s a day to day thing, but I’m a I’m an official Christmas affection nado and I love green chili and I love Red Chili. I just don’t have. And it’s not a political I just love them both. And most of the time, in fact, the last time we were at a restaurant and I ordered that it just automatically comes out Christmas.
Tom Garrity [00:20:24] So that’s one of the things you touched on that I learned a couple of years ago, is that you can do Christmas in Albuquerque north. But trying to do Christmas south of Albuquerque, even south of Socorro, can be like taking your life into your own hands.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:20:41] It really is. A lot of my restaurants are down in the southern part of the state. They specialize in either red or green. And they’re really good at it. And you make some of the orders with Christmas and they kind of look at you cross-eyed. So then then I go back to, okay, what’s your best one today? And, you know, it’s a I’ll tell you a little story you got if you’ve got a second. I was a teaching a class in Los Angeles, California, several years ago. And the people in the class wanted to take me up to supper one night, and they. They recommended we go to this Mexican food restaurant and I’m thinking Mexican food in L.A.. I don’t want eating any part of it. But that was, you know, I was the only no vote. So we went and we walked into the place and I look at the menu and they actually spelled with me.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:21:28] And I’m thinking, well, there’s a chance. So I asked the waitress if she would bring me a sample of both her red and green. Now, mind you, when I go to restaurants and ask for red and green, if I’m out of state, usually they don’t even know what I’m talking about.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:21:41] She brought me a sample of both red and green and I tasted it. And I told her that green was probably as good a chili as I’ve ever had. Bring me a plate, whatever that comes on. Bring me that plate. So she brought me that plate and it was fabulous. And I said, I need to talk to the chef. I’ve got to go back and talk to the chef. So they brought the chef out. Well, come to find out the chef in training, I’ll place places, Santa Fe, Santa Fe to L.A.. And I told them it was that so? So there’s more and more chili. I was in a restaurant in Washington, D.C., and they had a southwestern burger on the menu and it had chili spelled with. And he said it was from Hatch and all that stuff. So I asked him for a sample. And sure enough, it was you could you can tell. Right. You can tell the smell where it comes from. It was local. And then the owner came out to see what I was doing. And so we had a great conversation. Our reach of New Mexico is expanding exponentially and people are loving our southwestern New Mexico food. I couldn’t be happier because when Grekov that I was traveling a lot so I could get a taste of home pretty much any place I went.
Tom Garrity [00:22:54] Thanks for sharing that. Those are good stories. Where can people learn more about the farm and ranch industry?
Secy Jeff Witte [00:23:01] So you can always go to our website, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, if you Google or whatever your search profile is in New Mexico agriculture. We’ve got a lot of information in this TV business teamers. He has a tremendous amount of information as well through the College of Agriculture. And those are good places to go. And then all of your producer organizations, you know, there’s there’s a it’s just fun to do some searches and expand your horizons. Type in chili, salsa, farmer’s markets. We’ve got so much to offer in the state of New Mexico. I’m just if I couldn’t, I can tell you it’s just a great job for me to be here and promote our New Mexico agricultural economy and all of our producers.
Tom Garrity [00:23:46] State of New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte, thank you for your time today.
Secy Jeff Witte [00:23:51] Thank you. Enjoyed it.
Tom Garrity [00:23:53] For more insights about the Garrity Perception survey, visit GarityPR.com.
Published September 15, 2020
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Welcome to the June edition of The Garrity Group water cooler conversation where we have a chance to talk about the events that are on our mind on this June 21, 2021.
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