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Jun 20, 2017

New Greenhouses, Site Rehabilitation, Crop Growth - All in the Mix for Innovative Wholesome Valley Farms' Berino Site

“We’re starting around 4 in the morning and finishing up around 9 p.m.,” says Jay Hill of the crop work he and his crew are doing on a sprawling farm site in Berino, New Mexico.

Photo courtesy of Jay Hill for Wholesome Valley Farms

That work at the Wholesome Valley Farms’ expanding operation is anything but easy. But Hill isn’t complaining. “It’s only been about 100 degrees or so the last couple of days,” he laughs.

Hill is the hands-on chief executive officer of Wholesome Valley’s Berino farm, an enterprise drawing praise from around the state and region for transforming a swath of southern New Mexico land from a hopelessly contaminated past into a promising future.

Photo courtesy of Jay Hill for Wholesome Valley Farms

“This is in every way a good project,” says Eric Montgomery, vice president of the Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance, which is based in Las Cruces and promotes economic development throughout Dona Ana County.

“It fits well with our county’s agricultural history,” continues Montgomery, noting that the farm is also “bringing local jobs for those people who live in the immediate area.”

But, undeniably, one of the most compelling reasons why the Wholesome Valley Farms project has won support is its location, which Montgomery describes as “an old egg farm that the Environment Protection Agency had some concerns about.”

The site was once the home of a plant that saw up to 600,000 hens laying eggs for McAnally Enterprises, which opened its Berino operations in the early 1970s and was purchased by Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Land o’ Lakes, Inc. in 2011.

Roughly a year after the plant closed its doors in 2009, a federal Customs and Border Protection agent doing aerial surveillance noticed what was subsequently described as “acres and acres of chicken feces” at the site.

The ground water contamination from the waste was significant enough to prompt concerns that the land could never be utilized again without an extensive remediation that would probably be too costly for any company to undertake.

Enter Jay Hill.

“We looked at the property around 5 years ago and thought about building a pinto beans facility,” he says. “But we found out about the ground water problem, just what it would cost to clean the facility up, and decided not to do it.”

But when other potential business options for Hill didn’t present themselves to his satisfaction, he says, “I decided to rethink what we have here and got the idea that maybe it was time for me to take on something of that magnitude.”

The project, indeed, has proven a work of the first magnitude as Hill and his employees have taken on the task of turning roughly 600,000 square feet of concrete buildings that once served as chicken houses into greenhouses.

Photo courtesy of Jay Hill for Wholesome Valley Farms

“We’ve been cleaning them,” says Hill. “And when I say clean, we still have a ton of work to do in a majority of them. But at least we’ve started.”

The new greenhouses will be hydroponic, and part of a re-purposing also creating seed drying rooms and cotton seed milling.

Altogther, Wholesome Valley is going to spend around $12 million improving and modernizing the Berino site.

“I’m not doing this alone,” explains Hill. “I’ve got three investors who are a big part of it—my father [Jim Hill], and one guy from Las Cruces and another from Canada. They’re the ones that made this possible.”

An additional source of support was revealed earlier this year when Governor Susana Martinez announced that $620,000 in Local Economic Development Act funding via the New Mexico Economic Development Department would go to the Wholesome Valley operation.

“We worked with the principles involved with the project, not so much to secure their business line, but to help them secure some state incentives,” says Montgomery of the MVEDA.

In turn, Wholesome Valley will create around 90 permanent jobs in the next five years, as well as another 90 seasonal positions.

“We could end up with roughly 100 to 135 greenhouse jobs, and that includes the production area and cold storage,” says Hill.

“But depending upon the other ventures we’re working on, the number could eventually be as high as 200,” he continues.

At the same time, the farm will harvest an array of classic New Mexico crops from alfalfa, cabbage, corn, and onions, to pecans, pumpkins, and watermelons, among other staples.

Hill adds that while he’s more than happy to spearhead what is turning out to be a historic change at the Berino site, he’s also hoping that the publicity the project is getting will present an alternative narrative for an industry that is frequently maligned in the press.

“A lot of the time farmers get a bad rap -  people say that we don’t manage our natural resources in a correct way, and things like that,” says Hill.

“So it’s really great to see some light shed on something that was once negative, but is now giving back to the community,” Hill adds.  

 

By Garry Boulard

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