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Cold, Cured and Cleaned

New storage and processing technology is key to success for a New Mexico onion business.

Landscapes Summer 2019
Field of young onions

Photo by Andrés Leighton

This field of young onions near Deming. N.M., is a month out from harvest. It is part of the 400 acres of onions grown by Chile River Farms.


Imagine growing 400 acres of onions. And then harvesting, processing and getting those millions of onions to market, all in good condition.

That’s a challenge that Italian immigrant Joseph Franzoy could not have imagined when he started growing vegetables in New Mexico’s Hatch Valley nearly a century ago.

But much has changed in the state’s onion industry since then. Today, his great-grandson Shayne Franzoy is helping to lead the change, using high-tech harvesting, processing and storage equipment — much of it financed by Ag New Mexico Farm Credit.

“Shayne and his father, Jerry, are as technologically advanced as you can get,” says Warren Russell, Ag New Mexico senior vice president. “And their investment has paid off. Other growers and processors are more susceptible to weather and markets, but Chile River has eliminated much of the risk.”

In the past, the Franzoys — owners of Chile River Farms — followed the common industry practice of “curing” or drying onions in burlap sacks in the field. This often led to losses from extreme heat, rain or hail.

“Once onions mature, they have the greatest value, and you’ve got to get them out of the field and cured as soon as possible,” says Russell.

Staffers

Photo by Andrés Leighton

A few of the 20 full-time staffers at Chile River Farms are, left to right, Gaven Swinson, Josh Ceniceros, Axten Franzoy and Shayne Franzoy. Josh manages the Hatch Valley farming operations, while Axten manages the Deming farm with help from his cousin Gaven.


Automated Curing Process Is Key

Today the Franzoys’ curing process is automated. So are many other steps.

“Our automated sorting and curing facilities allow us to market to higher-end customers who pay more for our products,” Shayne says. “Automation also allows us to package onions to meet specific customer demands.”

It saves labor costs and helps the company maintain production during labor shortages, too.

Chile River started to upgrade its onion-processing facilities 12 years ago. That’s when Ag New Mexico began financing their operating line and equipment.

“It’s valuable to have a partner like Ag New Mexico to help grow our business,” says Shayne. “Warren understands our business and supports what we do.”

Cold Storage Preserves Quality

The Franzoys invested in a curing plant in 2007. About the same time, they began harvesting onions in 1,000-pound plastic bins to reduce weather damage.

Additional upgrades included an automated curing and cold-storage facility and automated packing lines with precise weighing and packaging equipment. They also upgraded their sizing line to reduce bruising and designed a sorting table that rotates onions without damaging them.

Storing onions at the right temperature and humidity level preserves quality and adds shelf life.

“Before, we had to pack everything that came out of the field,” Shayne says. “Now we store product in bins in a controlled environment until we receive our orders.”

Franzoy and Swinsons

Photo by Andrés Leighton

Shayne Franzoy, right, and his wife, Amanda, are pictured with her brother Gary Swinson, who built some of the equipment behind them. Amanda manages production at the onion-processing plant, located in Salem, N.M.


Onion Farming Is in Their Blood

In the 1980s, Jerry Franzoy named his company Chile River Inc., for the Rio Grande River that flows past the family farm at Salem. This is where his great-grandparents and their 10 children started growing onions and peppers, which thrive in New Mexico’s warm, dry climate.

Chile River remains a family business. Twelve of the company’s 22 full-time employees are relatives. Shayne’s wife, Amanda, manages production at the onion facility. Cousin Victoria is the office manager, and son Axten manages the Deming farms.

That’s not all. Amanda’s brother, Gary Swinson, and Gary’s father, Ronnie Swinson, own a fabrication company that built parts of the equipment lines. Others include Shayne and Amanda’s daughter, Ollie, plus nieces, nephews, cousins and in-laws.

"Buyers like consistent quality and size and want a clean, shiny, dry onion. ... We’ve proved we can deliver that."

– Shayne Franzoy

Franzoys Are an Onion Dynasty

The offspring of Joseph and Celestina Franzoy are a dynasty in New Mexico’s vegetable industry. Close to 100 of the couple’s descendants are involved in some aspect of growing, processing, packing, marketing and shipping chile or onions in the Hatch Valley.

The Chile River band of Franzoys not only farms 400 acres of onions, they also grow 300 acres of chiles near Salem, Hatch, Las Cruces and Deming. Other crops include 1,400 acres of wheat, corn, cotton, pecans and watermelons.

Shayne and Jerry also employ technology, such as GPS-based equipment and subsurface drip irrigation, in their farming operations. But some jobs still require hand labor, including weeding, onion topping and harvesting. It takes 100 part-time workers to harvest the crop between late May and late August and 60 people for processing.

It’s challenging work but the Franzoys have always been willing to work hard and try new technology. And it shows in their success.

No doubt their ancestors would be proud.

– Nancy Jorgensen


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