Hill Farms, Las Cruces, New Mexico
A Long Time Friend
Jay Hill and his family own Hill Farms and Shiloh Produce in the South Valley of Las Cruces, New Mexico. He is both a neighbor to my mom and a college buddy of mine from New Mexico State University. He has been farming most of his life, specifically growing onions, chile and forage for local dairies.
Jay and I have stayed in touch throughout the years following college. When I told him I was wanting to visit farms as part of my journey with The Harvest Trail, he happily offered me a chance to tag along with him during his onion harvest.
Jay is not just your run of the mill farmer or produce broker. Jay helps broker deals for Shiloh Produce, in Hatch New Mexico, shipping onions all over the country. They even have a contract with OutBack SteakHouse for their Bloomin Onion.
3rd Generation Farmer
Jay’s dad, Jim Hill, is a second generation farmer and the first in his family to farm in New Mexico. He started with just a few hundred acres as a hobby and tax shelter. After retiring and selling off his non-farming businesses, Jay’s Dad did what most New Mexico farmers can only dream of doing, he became a full time farmer. Hill Farms includes about 800-900 acres of corn, alfalfa, chile, onions, wheat and lettuce. Jay has since followed in his dad’s footsteps and become a full-time farmer himself.
A Bloomin Onion Starts In The Field
Joining us on our Harvest Trail adventure is Tyson Adams, one of Jay's long time farming friends. Tyson's family owns Adam's Produce, another huge farming operation in the Uvas Valley, New Mexico. Together they took us on a tour of one of Tyson's onion farms. Jay and Tyson explained how onion pickers work hard at filling their assigned bins, each labeled with information including the pickers ID, what type of produre they picked, and the GPS location of the bin on the farm. This collected information is all part of the USDA’s initiative on traceabilty -this is just a fancy way of saying farmers need to have an auditing system in place in case of, say, a disease outbreak. I asked Jay and Tyson why this farm doesn't mechanically harvest onions (using machinery instead of human pickers) like other farms in the area. He said they like a higher water content in their onions and the machinery would just chew them up. This is a sore subject for them and many other farmers that need pickers to harvest. Jay explained why, "The man power is just not there anymore to get the job done." Tyson says in the the next few years they will be probably be forced to change to an automated system or move to another crop that can easily be machine harvested.
Imperfections Look Perfect To Me
While we are talking I come across an onion in the field that appeared to be seeding. I thought it was pretty, but apparently this is not a good thing. Jay called this a 'bolted' onion. When the onion “bolts’, or seeds for us layman folks, it causes the heart of the onion to become soft and in turn becomes a less desirable product. Tyson is holding the bolted onion, he was not cut out of the photo, he laughingly asked me to cut him out, saying he did not want to be in the picture with a less than perfect product. Thankfully, bolting is not a common site on this farm during harvest.
What Kind Of Onion Makes For A Good Bloomin Onion?
I ask Jay how many varieties of onions they grow, “We grow over 20 different varieties, 12 yellows and others [making up] a mix of red and whites”. Who knew? Of course most of us have heard of the the Vidalia Onion, it even has its own festival in Georgia (the onion is also Georgia's official state vegetable). Then there is the great state of Texas who is always boasting about it's sweet onion. But most stores seem to carry one white, one yellow, and one red option. Definitely not 20 varieties. I ask him how his brokers call up and ask about purchasing 20 different varieties. He laughed and said, “They don't. They ask for yellow or red, unless they are looking for ‘ringing’.” Okay, here comes the onion jargon again. Jay explains that specific varieties are good for making onion rings. And What makes an onion a good ringer? You guessed it, the onion's rings. The varieties offering better and larger rings are growing on Hill Farms and happen to have some pretty high tech names, including; Ovation 1113 and 1101, Renegade and a mix Western Giant. So the next time you take a bite into a juicy, battered, deep fried onion remember to thank a farmer.