A New Breed of Farmer

November 1, 2017 10:18 AM
Jay Hill

Every fall evening in the shadow of the rugged Organ Mountains, time stopped when a boy watched combines and pickers rumble down the road. From the security of a tractor tire sandbox in his yard, he could feel the vibrations of the rolling armada. The view from his sandbox stamped an indelible mark on 6-year-old Jay Hill: It triggered a life in the dirt for a first-generation farmer.

Fast forward a decade to 2001 and a teenaged Hill grown 16 years strong. Staring at a tiny patch of family land beckoning in New Mexico’s Eden-like Mesilla Valley just 17 miles from the Mexican border, Hill calculated farming costs and got his father’s signature as bank backing. He planted 10 acres of onions and walked the rows each day, swinging a hoe and listening to never-ending playback of Waylon Jennings on a Walkman duct-taped to his belt. Hill worked his 10 acres every day from sunup until 3:30 p.m., and then loaded onion bags at a nearby packing plant from 4 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. At harvest, he snagged a price peak and caught one of the biggest fresh onion markets the valley had ever seen. Shoulder to the door, young Hill leased an adjoining farm in 2002 and clawed his way to a permanent foothold in agriculture.

Hill, 32, has linked a remarkably consistent chain of farming successes, stacking strength on strength over 16 years. Ten acres and a John Deere 4020 tractor have exploded into a multilayered commercial operation with an array of moving parts. Highly diversified row crops, cattle, restaurant distribution, direct-to-consumer goods, hydroponics and more, Hill Farms is changing the face of agriculture in southern New Mexico.

When Hill’s father, Jim, retired in 2005, he bought a 3,000-acre farm on the far west side of New Mexico in Lordsburg, and sent 20-year-old Hill to run the operation. With his nearest neighbor 17 miles away, Hill prospered for two years, growing chile (2,000 acres), corn and wheat. “The relative isolation was good for me as a young man and forced me to sharpen my business sense because every input was my call,” Hill says.

When a dairyman came in with a strong offer, the Hill family took the buyout and sold the Lordsburg land. Hill was back in the Mesilla Valley looking for farmland. During the next five years, he leased and bought small pieces, building up to 550 acres. In 2013, Hill was ready to venture beyond row crops. He started a commercial pinto cleaning business that quickly expanded to retail and restaurant delivery. Hill hooked a box container lined with freezers to a GMC Duramax and began delivering fresh beans, lettuce and tomatoes. After starting with five customers, Hill currently delivers to 70 restaurants.

“The retail side exploded. With me not being a multigenerational farmer, maybe I was willing to look at things nobody else would touch,” he says.

Row crops, restaurant distribution, and bean cleaning, Hill was only just beginning to expand. He also runs a seed operation with several hundred acres of onions, watermelons, carrots and cucumbers. In addition, Hill’s chile company targets retail grocers and the online market. In 2016, he partnered and purchased a condemned 750,000-sq.-ft. egg facility. As part of an environmental cleanup project for the state of New Mexico, Hill is converting the chicken houses into greenhouses to grow hydroponic lettuce and tomatoes.

Essentially, Hill’s initial 10-acre production has jumped the rows and expanded to six ventures with 22 full-time and 400 seasonal employees: FARMesilla, Organ Mountain Produce, Organ Mountain Restaurant Distribution, Wholesome Valley Farms, Hill Farms and The Fresh Chile Company. He ships produce to all 50 states and several foreign markets.

“We’ve been very blessed in our business decisions. My mother has always in been in constant prayer for us and I know the Lord was looking out for us,” he says. “In five years, we may be three or four times our size. In a decade, we could be 10 times our size now. That’s the speed of expansion and reflects the level of demand.”

Hill calls himself the “head rubber ball” bouncing from project to project. On occasion, he’s decked in a three-piece suit to meet with CEOs in a high-rise, but a few hours later he’s back to wearing grease-covered jeans and boots. “Duty calls and I get cleaned up and wear another hat. I love being a versatile farmer and I love showing people what I do. Sure, it’s surreal and sometimes I sit on the porch and scratch my head.”

Fellow Doña Ana County producer, Greg Daviet, says Hill runs a unique operation. “Jay is truly a new breed of farmer. He approaches the enterprises he chooses to develop, as well as his cultural practices, in ways that are innovative and more in touch with consumers than farmers of my generation.”

Jeff Witte, Secretary of Agriculture of New Mexico, says Hill wants his customers to know what it takes to put food on the table. “Jay reaches out to people who enjoy the product of his toil. He’s an outgoing individual who is not afraid of anything and has the great ability to connect with people to show them all the values that go into food production.”

Hill places the end consumer on a pedestal and welcomes public interest. In 2016, Hill Farms shipped 250,000 bags of pinto beans with Hill’s personal cell phone number stamped on the bottom of each bag. “I want people to find me if they need to ask questions about food that I grew,” he says.

His tractor tire sandbox memories and lessons learned from 10 acres of onions remain part and parcel of Hill’s makeup. Waylon Jennings still plays in the truck or tractor cab every single day. “Everything is so much bigger now, but nothing really changes in so many ways. My job is to feed people the right way, and I want to make an impact beyond the profit line.”

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