Oct 7, 2008
Partnerships Help New Mexico Farm

The Mesilla Valley Maze and Lyles Family Farms is a rarity in New Mexico: A farm that’s open to the public.

Unlike other parts of the country, where farm markets, pumpkin patches, corn mazes and similar businesses are fairly common, New Mexico has hardly any agritourism to speak of. Anna Lyles said there are maybe half a dozen such farms in the entire state.

“We farm a lot differently in the Southwest than the rest of the country,” she said. “The average rainfall is 9 inches a year.”

Anna and her husband, Steve Lyles, grow more than 2,000 acres of onions, green chili peppers, watermelons, cabbage, lettuce, wheat, alfalfa, pumpkins, tomatoes, eggplant, green beans, sweet corn, squash and other crops in Las Cruces, N.M. According to Anna, Steve does the “real farming.” Nearly everything he grows is sold to retailers. She is in charge of entertainment and education at the 35-acre “hobby farm,” which is more or less a separate business.

The hobby farm is more of a full-time job for Anna. It would be easier and more profitable to stick to commercial growing, but bringing people to the farm and teaching them the benefits of agriculture has its own rewards, she said.

“We want to give back to the community in a positive way,” she said. “We’re doing a good thing – and making enough money to pay the bills.”

According to the farm’s Web site, www.mesillavalleymaze.com, Steve and Anna started farming in the Mesilla Valley in 1985. In 1999, phythophthora killed most of their chili crop, so they plowed up the field and, on a neighbor’s suggestion, created a corn maze that would tie into the celebration of Las Cruces’ 150th anniversary. Up to that point, creating mazes had been a means of keeping their five kids occupied, but the new corn maze took things to a new level.

“It’s been kind of crazy ever since,” Anna said. “The whole place has exploded.”

They started with “3 acres, a couple extension cords and two porta-potties,” she said, but the agritourism farm has grown to include the corn maze, a u-pick pumpkin patch (with hayrides), a playground, a u-pick garden, a country store and an educational facility – all on 35 acres.

The farm is open to the public for eight weeks beginning in September (the New Mexico heat is too intense to open any sooner). The target customers are families with kids 12 and under. Thousands of parents and children are present on weekends. The cost is $8 for adults and $6 for children, Anna said.

The farm also hosts an October pumpkin festival, private parties and fundraisers. There are 70 employees during the fall season, she said.

Anna considers education to be the most important part of her job. She works so hard at it that she was named New Mexico’s Ag Educator of the Year in 2006.

“We’re heavily invested in agriculture-based education,” she said. “People have forgotten how important farmers really are.”

It started simply enough. Anna sent out fliers to local schools (Las Cruces is about 50 miles from the Mexican border, with El Paso, Texas, being the closest big city), inviting them to take a free field trip. When they came out, the teachers wanted Anna to tell their students a few things about agriculture. So, she gave it a shot. The farm now hosts about 22,000 school kids annually, most of them elementary students. The charge is $5 a head. Field trips take place during the week, she said.

Simply calling them “field trips” doesn’t do them justice, however. Teachers give their students related lessons before and after each visit, to supplement what they learn at the farm. The state-approved curriculum touches on subjects like science, math, literature, social studies, geography, geology and American history. The more the lessons tie into state educational standards, the easier a sell they are for teachers and administrators, Anna said.

“We need to teach what (the students) need to learn,” she said. “There’s not much money available for field trips that are just for fun.”

Lyles Family Farms has formed many important partnerships within the surrounding community, perhaps none more important than its partnership with New Mexico State University, the state’s land-grant institution.

NM State’s Department of Surveying Engineering works with Anna to cut the farm’s corn maze every year. In return, the farm funds an endowed scholarship to the department, she said.

The farm also partners with the university’s education department. Teachers in training accompany actual field trips and learn how to deal with students, parents and other teachers in a non-classroom setting, Anna said.

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