He is just one of those guys that get it done.” Those are the words of Bill Cox, a consulting agronomist who has worked with this year’s Grower Achievement Award winner, Steven Lyles of Steven Lyles Farms, for more than two decades. Cox, who nominated the farm for the award and is the owner of Coxco Ag Services, says one of the most remarkable things about Lyles is how he got started. With no family ties to Las Cruces, NM — where the farm is located — Lyles got a job as a foreman at a large vegetable farm, and later branched out on his own, acquiring farmland as he went along.
“Out here, land is very competitive,” Cox says of the Las Cruces area. “By sheer determination, Steve was able to do what everyone thought he couldn’t do.” Lyles looked at every challenge as an opportunity, especially when it came to urban farming, the latest technology, and food safety, he adds.
Despite not being raised on a vegetable farm, Lyles, who received a degree in crop science from New Mexico State University (NMSU), is no stranger to agriculture. He grew up on a cotton and alfalfa farm in Hagerman, NM. After college he returned home and farmed with his father for about a year and a half. After that, he headed to California to work for a large corporate farm, then to Yuma to plant lettuce, and after that to Coachella, CA, to prune table grapes, gaining experience at each stop.
It was when he was asked to take a management position at a Las Cruces vegetable operation, Simpson Farms, in 1985 that Lyles opted to come back to the area, but it was with one condition: He would be allowed to farm on the side.
After getting one year under his belt at Simpson Farms, Lyles rented 10 acres to farm on his own. Within six or seven years, he turned 10 acres into more than 1,000.
The Urban Challenge
As Lyles increased his acreage, he wound up using land that is on the outskirts of Las Cruces’ city limits. Farming near populated areas can present multiple challenges, as he had to be aware of noise, dust, and drift issues impacting neighbors nearby.
“I farm around one school so we have to be careful of what and when we spray,” he explains. As Integrated Pest Management is the basis for insect control on the farm, safety and the preservation of beneficial insects are key when choosing what to spray.
“We monitor the insect populations closely and use the softest chemistries available,” he adds.
Because of where the farmland is situated, Lyles and his wife Anna decided to teach their neighbors about the value of ag and what is involved in producing crops. This teaching effort, says Cox, turned into a major “plus” for the farm.
That “plus” began in the form of the Lyles’ Mesilla Valley Maze Family Fun Farm, which is also located in Las Cruces (www.mesillavalleymaze.com).
What started as a corn maze for their children has become an autumn tradition in Southern New Mexico. A successful venture, the fun farm is now entering its 14th season. On the weekends, families visit, but during the week, the focus is on ag education.
“Hosting over 20,000 elementary students during the six weeks of operation each year, we are able to share the message of ag with children, parents, and educators from New Mexico and West Texas,” explains Anna Lyles, manager of the maze and New Mexico’s Ag Educator of the Year. The curriculum meets educational standards for New Mexico and Texas for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
To help develop this curriculum, Anna is very involved with Ag in the Classroom, a national organization that promotes ag-based education in schools throughout the U.S. The ag lessons at the maze run the gamut from pumpkin lessons on the hayride to the outdoor classroom where various topics like pollination and irrigation are explored. As an expansion on the education program, the Lyles have set up a non-profit family foundation, endowing a scholarship fund at New Mexico State University, awarding scholarships through the maze, grants for local teachers, and as funding for New Mexico teachers to attend the National Ag in the Classroom Conference.
Better And Faster
For the Lyles, the classroom is just one aspect of the learning process. The operation strives to produce crops as efficiently as possible, which often involves using the latest technology.
For example, all fields are laser leveled and Lyles’ fleet of tractors range from 30 to 500 horsepower. He has this range for a good reason. As saving seed is always a priority, a tool was developed that will enable a light tractor to go into the field and break crust when the ground is too wet for heavy equipment.
“When we are trying to plant in the spring, particularly when it has been a wet spring, we can go back in with little ‘crust busters,’” he explains. “A lot of our ground will crust on the top of the beds where the seeds sit, but if our furrows are wet we can’t get in with a big tractor. Instead, we use the small tractors to get in, save the seed, and get the crop to emerge so we don’t have to replant and be behind schedule.”
Many of the tools used by Lyles are designed and built by his friend, Dave Koenig of Koenig Enterprises. Lyles says one of the main benefits of working with Koenig is that tweaks can be made to equipment after it has been trialed in the field.
Lyles also does some “tweaking” when choosing how to irrigate his crops. Though many of his vegetable acres are watered via drip, the method of irrigation used depends on the crop and its specific needs. It is not one size fits all. For example, solid set sprinklers are used on lettuce in the fall as germination is taking place and the temperatures are soaring, explains Cox. He should know. Cox handles all of the farm’s irrigation scheduling.
“We use Bill’s [Cox] rec-ommendations to make a weekly schedule to determine what will be irrigated and when,” says Lyles. “Bill allows me to farm a lot more ground because he is here every Thursday. The consistency really helps. Instead of using a calendar, we use Bill and his soil probe and irrigate by consumption, not by date.”
Mandating Food Safety
Lyles also strives to be as efficient as possible with food safety protocols. In fact, he wants to be ahead of the curve — not following it.
“We were already doing a lot of what was required, but we weren’t documenting everything,” he says. “One of my auditors said, ‘If it’s not documented, you’re not doing it.’
“I could see that buyers were going to start requiring documentation, so we began keeping more detailed records,” Lyles explains. “We have always kept pesticide records, and it has helped us stay organized as a result.”
So it should come as no surprise to hear that NMSU cites him as an example of “how to do things right” and that the horticulture professors often take ag students on tours of the farm to see how things “should be done,” says Cox.
For instance, Lyles became GAP certified long before it was mandated. “Green chile processors began asking for certification, but Steve got certified on his own,” says Cox. “He anticipates these things and is a stickler for doing it right. He has his food safety manuals in place and he makes sure they are followed.”
The Future Of Ag
What is next for Steven Lyles Farms? Right now, Lyles would simply like to continue doing his job. He mentions, though, that he has a young manager who is stepping up his game, and one of his daughters, Joanna, who is in college now, might come back to work on the farm in some capacity.
One of his main concerns, however, lies in the future of the industry, especially since the average age of the American farmer is 57. “With the amount of investment needed and with everything getting more expensive, it is hard for someone to start farming without some assistance,” he says.
In spite of the costs, Lyles is optimistic that ag will have a bright future in the U.S. “I would hate to see us rely on outside countries for our food. That is not to our benefit. We are better off with a local food source. Strong ag is the key to a strong country.”
For more information on Steven Lyles Farms and the Grower Achievement Award, go to page two.