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Sacred ground: The changing face of farming in the Borderland

Pima cotton is a crop that draws another comparison to Egypt's Nile Valley. It’s better known by its brand name, Supima, a combination of the words superior and Pima.

Farming is the Borderland's oldest industry, dating back to even before the Spanish conquistadors arrived with their vineyards, horses and other livestock more than 400 years ago. The fertile valley draws biblical comparisons.

"We're very blessed in this area, I think both El Paso and Las Cruces. We just happen to be, I guess, at a very unique elevation. So there's been comparison to the Nile Valley,” said El Paso County agriculture extension agent Orlando Flores. "We're the largest producer of Pima cotton in the state of Texas. We're also the largest producers of improved variety pecans in the state of Texas."

The Mesilla Valley stretches into the Mission Valley -- a thin swath of land along the Rio Grande in Dona Ana and El Paso counties; an area that's produced world-class crops for centuries. Dona Ana County is home to the world's largest pecan orchard on Stahmann Farms, while El Paso County has some of the planet's most productive Pima cotton fields.

Pima cotton is a crop that draws another comparison to Egypt's Nile Valley. It’s better known by its brand name, Supima, a combination of the words superior and Pima. It competes with Egyptian cotton for bragging rights when it comes to producing the most luxurious sheets, linens and clothes. The group that licenses the Supima brand worldwide began in El Paso in 1954.

Another major crop grown in this river valley is alfalfa, which feeds the cattle that produce the meat, milk and cheese many of us love.

Ramon Tirres said he began farming 43 years ago because he “just loves to grow things." His biggest crop is Pima cotton. But he also grows alfalfa and pecans.

The essentials of farming remain the same for Ramon: getting enough water and sunshine for his crops and using the knowledge he's learned over a lifetime of farming, like knowing when it’s just right to plant his crops.

Tirres has also witnessed a technological revolution in farming.

“Technology has changed farming in this valley tremendously.” Tirres said, “GPS systems, laser systems, the computer systems on tractors."

While companies are still developing self-driving cars and trucks, self-driving tractors have been down on the farm for 20 years. Raul Quijas works on the Tirres farm. While he sits in the driver's seat of the tractor, he never touches the steering wheel. He leaves that to the computer. He said the computer-driven tractor does a perfect job of preparing the soil for planting.

All the new technology farmers now have access to is a big reason Tirres only needs 12 workers to cover the nearly 1,900 acres he farms.

Laser-guided leveling of fields gets just the right amount of water to the crops.

"Laser leveling has, I would say, conserved millions of gallons of water in this valley,” Flores said.

He also explained how GPS technology has helped farmers create perfect rows of crops.

"Before they would kind of eyeball it and take a look at it and see; get close. But now you're saving space, and you might be able to get an extra two or three trees at the end of the field."

Three additional pecan trees can produce more than 100 pounds of nuts.

Even pesticide use is now controlled by artificial intelligence, making its application much more precise and limited.

“You want to put out there exactly what you need, not what you think you need,” Tirres said, “because too much chemical is not good for you anyway, for the environment, for anyone concerned."

Something else I learned while reporting this story is that Borderland farmers don't really pray for rain, they pray for snow in the Rockies.

“The ideal situation for us is if it didn't rain where we have control of the irrigation." Flores said."My grandfather always used to use that analogy. He said, 'An irrigated valley does not need one drop of rain as long as it rains above the dam.'"

That's because rain at the wrong time can create new problems and pests.

But the biggest pest farmers in both the Upper and Lower valleys now face is people encroaching on this prime farmland. Tirres said he began farming in the area that’s now Lomaland Drive.

"This valley is unique because it has irrigation; the soil's fertile. But once you plant concrete, it's over," Tirres said.

The Lower Valley Water District provides farms across El Paso County with irrigation water. The district’s general manager, Jesus Reyes, said that in 1995, there was 69,000 acres of irrigated farmland in the county. That number is now down to 45,000 acres. That means more than one-third of El Paso County's farmland has been lost since then.

"I wish more people would to get to know farming," Tirres said, “because here in El Paso, some people, it's hard to believe they don't even know this valley exists. It's a big industry, and if we lose it to urbanization, it'll be gone forever."

One bright spot for Borderland farmers this year is that there was plenty of snow in the Rockies over the winter, and because of that they'll get their full allocation of irrigation water from Elephant Butte Lake this year. The last time that happened was in 2008.

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