With New Mexico's annual onion crop harvest slowly beginning to wrap up and chili peppers "looking good" so far, there have been some surprising harvest predictions rolling in spite of irrigation shortages and another year of serious drought.

USDA reports 31 percent of the state's onion crop is rated excellent, 35 percent rates as good, and 34 percent as fair. According to the report issued last week, in 2012 New Mexico produced 286 million pounds of onions valued at just over $56 million. But New Mexico State University Vegetable Specialist Stephanie Walker indicated low pest and disease pressure could help to produce a larger crop this year in spite of other challenges.

Walker also reports Hatch-area chili pepper farmers are reporting a good crop. USDA is rating just over 50 percent of the state's peppers in excellent or fair condition as of last week.

The state has been plagued by three years of drought conditions ranging from serious to extreme and the lack of Rio Grande River irrigation water has once again forced growers to pump high salinity ground water on their crops.

As a result of the drought and absence of adequate irrigation water from the river, onion yields are down in the Hatch area. But growers around Hatch and farther south in Doña Ana County report they are still bagging up to 1,300 sacks of onions per acre.

"The (onion) harvest is going well," Walker reported, though she said harvest schedules are slightly behind last year's numbers because of late spring planting.

Growers in the Hatch area say cooler temperatures that lasted deeper into the spring this year have slowed production in both onion and pepper crops, but considering multiple challenges this year, harvest and crop conditions so far looks promising.

Last year the area suffered late season hail storms that hampered production yields, and that may contribute to this years overall onion harvest compared to last year. In 2011 the state's total onion haul was about 271 million pounds according to USDA's report, and 2010's total yield was 330 million pounds.

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The largest onion hauls in New Mexico in recent years were in 2007 when 355 million pounds were harvested, 2003 when 424 million pounds were brought in,  and in 2002 when 440 million pounds were reported, but that harvest only produced $55 million in total value.

Adding to the possibility of a slightly larger onion harvest this year are reported yields per acre west of Hatch near Las Uvas where farmers were reporting nearly 2,000 sacks per acre.

Across Doña Ana County growers say hot dry weather experienced in recent weeks has been good for the onion and pepper crops, but scattered rain and thunderstorms across parts of the state in recent days has hampered some onion harvest efforts.

Over the weekend more rain showers were being reported and growers are saying wet fields at this stage could provide unexpected difficulties for the ongoing onion harvest if either rain continues or fields are slow to dry.

On July 16 New Mexico State University staged an onion field day at the Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center south of Las Cruces that was well attended. The field day featured topic speakers who shared the latest in technology with growers and tours were staged for those in attendance as well.

As far as the state's prized chili pepper crop, early reports from Hatch area growers indicate they too are doing extremely well in spite of the drought. In fact, Walker says the dry, hot weather has offered pest and disease relief to peppers as compared to recent years.

Walker reports the dry weather has helped keep low the numbers of many problematic insects this year, which has reduced the instances of curly top virus that can decimate a chili pepper crop. Also, there has been little problems with plant fungus that thrives in moist conditions, further aiding this year's crop.

Chili pepper harvest is expected to begin in the next week to 10 days, about the same time as last year, and while it is too early to estimate yields, most growers agree the season should be better than last year.


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