The prolonged drought in the Southwest is beginning to affect New Mexican onion crops by concentrating salt in ground water.

“We haven’t had any rain as long as I can remember,” Chris Franzoy, president of Young Guns Produce in Hatch, N.M., said May 1.

“Salinity levels are up a little from last year,” he said, “and we could see a decrease in production and maybe a smaller size profile. But we still anticipate having enough volume of all sizes for retail promotion and for the foodservice industry.”

Compared to the past five years, “this year has been really bad,” said Chris Cramer, horticulture professor at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces.

“The only rainfall we’ve had in the past three months has been one-tenth of an inch in a single storm,” said Cramer.

Surface water typically would move salts through the soil, he said, but with reservoirs depleted dramatically, salts are building up in the ground water many growers pump from wells to irrigate their crops.

High salt levels reduce plant size, and they don’t produce as large a bulb, he said. That leads to more smaller bulbs, which command a lower price on the market.

Growers in southern New Mexico outside the irrigation district must rely entirely on ground water, Cramer said.

“It’s terrible,” said Marty Franzoy, owner of Skyline Produce, Hatch. “We’re not getting much out of the reservoirs, and with our pumps going down every week, we just hope we have enough water to finish this year’s crop.”

To reduce water use, many New Mexican growers have switched to drip irrigation.

James Johnson, vice president of Carzalia Valley Produce in Columbus, N.M., said he and other growers are taking the next step. Instead of burying a drip tape six to seven inches deep, they’re injecting a tape just two inches below the surface.

“It really cuts water use, probably by 40%,” said Johnson, “and it makes a lot better crop.”

Between the shallower drip line, a milder spring and good stand establishment, he expects to harvest close to a million bags this year.

“That’s considerably up from last year because our on-field yields are so much higher,” he said.

Jay Hill, president of transportation and farmers for Hatch-based shipper Shiloh Produce, said salt problems haven’t dramatically affected yields.

“We’re battling it pretty well,” he said. “But if we don’t get any rainfall, we’re definitely going to have problems next year. We’re already seeing yields drop off with our alfalfa, and vegetables will soon be the same way.”