Dell City farmers advance water innovation

Dell City farmers advance water innovation
Posted on 05/17/2022

Farmer Jay Hill has been cultivating an education in agriculture since he was a teen.

Instead of playing football, Hill was hoeing weeds on his first onion field at age 15 in Las Cruces.

Over time, the New Mexico State University alum acquired a unique knowledge of soil and drip irrigation in Las Cruces, Lordsburg and Berino, N.M., where he successfully transformed a contaminated chicken farm into thriving farmland.

A new venture beckoned, and Hill and his father inquired about farming property that El Paso Water was leasing. EPWater leases about 50,000 acres of farmland in Dell City, Texas, also known as the Valley of Hidden Waters. The utility specifically seeks farmers who understand conservation and innovation are vital to operations.

Growth opportunities

Farmers are encouraged to introduce sustainable techniques – such as drip and center pivot irrigation – and improve crop productivity. Strip-till and no-till farming conservation systems are also practiced to reduce soil erosion. EPWater also provides incentives and better tools to advance innovative farming practices.

Turns out Hill was exactly the kind of progressive farmer EPWater was looking to attract to Dell City.

“Keith Newbill told me there’s going to be more than just renting a farm to somebody; there’s going to be a local impact to long-term farming,” Hill said. Newbill, External Business Operations Manager for the El Paso and Hudspeth Counties Regional Water Supply Corporation, manages land owned by EPWater in Dell City.

"People are wanting our wine grapes," Hill said. The vineyard has produced award winning wine.EPWater owns more than 70,000 acres in the Dell City area after purchasing land and water rights associated with the Bone Springs-Victorio Peak aquifer. The utility is committed to sustaining a viable agricultural community in the area and has invested in pilot programs to improve water efficiencies, President and CEO John Balliew said.

Decades from now, water will be piped 90 miles to El Paso to help meet peak water needs. The project will include new wells, pump stations and pipe infrastructure.

“El Paso Water strives to be a responsible steward of land and water as well as a good neighbor in Dell City,” Balliew said. “We want to ensure the stability and vitality of not just El Paso but of Dell City, too.”

“Every landowner who sold to El Paso Water had the opportunity to stay on their land and lease it back at market rates,” Newbill said. “Newcomers to the valley all have well-vetted experience and are committed to sustainable farming and to community involvement.” 

An opportunity arose for Hill to manage Dell Valley Ranch Management, which is the largest of EPWater’s lessees in Dell City and employs 34.

“Dell City has always had a reputation of chewing farmers up and spitting them out because this is some of the hardest farming you are going to find, but at the same time it’s how you farm it and it’s how you wrap your mind around the practices,” Hill said.

Mostly wins and some crop losses later, Hill has learned a thing or two about irrigation efficiency strategies, such as subterranean drip systems, and other sustainable farming practices to be a better land steward. Drip irrigation may reduce water usage by 30%.

Flood irrigationThrough a project in 2019 funded by EPWater and a grant from the Texas Water Development Board, sub-surface drip irrigation was installed on 150 acres of farmland in Dell City to evaluate its efficiency. Results showed up to 42% water savings.

New methods have also had an impact on the agricultural carbon footprint, he said. 

“We take a really bad rap in ag for the amount of carbon that we emit,” Hill said. “With drip irrigation, we’re talking about going from 12 tractor passes on a flood field or 10 passes on a pivot field to 3 passes. I’m not plowing and leveling the field. I’m not doing any of that anymore because I’ve got my water source underneath me.”

Hill has also embraced AgSense monitoring technology systems to prevent water loss in his fields and cover crops to protect and enrich soil. He has also learned more about improving Dell City’s soil structure with alternative solutions.

“We are saving 1.2 million gallons of water a day since 2017, when we put that system in,” Hill said.

In addition, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) has been installed on all well meters to capture real-time flow data and monitor water use on the utility’s farmland. EPWater also partnered with Texas A&M AgriLife Research to benchmark soil erosion, irrigation, soil quality and management techniques to enhance performance and conservation. 

Community impact

Aside from being held accountable for conservation practices, EPWater also asks tenants to support the small community and make a difference there, Newbill said.

“I am getting calls all of the time from people who want to lease,” Newbill said. “We look for conservation- and community-minded people who have the farming acumen to survive out here. We also want people in the community for the long term.”

Little by little, growth is coming to Dell City, which claims a population near 500. Hill, who contributed to the growth with his family of four, is proud of helping to build a more sustainable future in the community he loves.

“When we got here, the school was at 59, and now it’s at 64, 65 students,” said Hill, who wears many hats in town, including Future Farmers of America teacher and captain of the Dell Valley Fire and Rescue. “This is home now. I want my kids to go to school here and say they lived in the middle of nowhere and that we had a good time.”

To learn more about importing water from Dell City, click here.

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