History of Early Farming in Lea County, New Mexico

Lea County was created in 1917 by cutting off the eastern side of Chaves and Eddy counties. It was mainly a livestock-producing section and not considered very valuable by the leading citizens of Chaves and Eddy counties.

It was designated as the "outback" of the two counties. The area had been opened for homesteading in the early 1900s and three or four hundred farmers had located along the eastern border. In this part of the county, shallow water was found in abundance and the soil was very productive. Most of the farmers had a few head of livestock and dry-farmed to raise feed crops, some cow peas, beans and cotton. They irrigated gardens and orchards from shallow wells and produced most of the fruits and vegetables needed in the home.

Image of 4-H club

Crops grown under dry-farming methods were uncertain and yields low except in years when rainfall was plentiful. Cotton made an average of about one hundred pounds per acre and very few acres were grown. The county was under-developed and there was not an open highway in the county. You opened gates wherever you went. There was no railroad and goods were freighted in by trucks and a twenty-burro freight team from Seagraves, Texas and Carlsbad, New Mexico. There was no active organization in the county to work for better conditions. Without some county organization, not much progress could be made. So early in 1923, the Lovington Chamber of Commerce was reorganized and work started to get improved highways, farms and ranches. With such influential citizens as Warren Snyder, Seth Alston, William Dean, Wm. Beauchamp, Sim Eaves, Edd Love, Wesley McAllister, A. C. Kimbrough and many others, results soon were to be seen.

When I came to the county in 1922 as County Extension agent, Lea County had gone through a drought and financial panic and the spirit of the citizens was at a low ebb.

My first job was to get acquainted with the county and lay out a plan of work for the future. Everywhere I went I found good gardens and orchards raised under irrigation. And at the Pearl community, Lewis Evans was irrigating some crops and an orchard from a shallow well, 22 feet deep. His well was hand dug and water was lifted with a Ford engine and a centrifugal pump. We went down in the well and found the water was supplied by a running stream of water. From the results he obtained under irrigation, it looked like the development of irrigation wells would be the answer to farming in Lea County and that became the main item in the program of work.

In 1924, an irrigation well was obtained on the farm of S. P. Jordan by his nephew, in the Pearl community, and cotton grown under irrigation. The yield was very high and a meeting of interested farmers was held to show what irrigation would do. Soon wells were developed in the Plainview, Prairie View, Humble City, McDonald, Lovington, Hobbs and Tatum communities. From the start, irrigation to produce feed for livestock to carry them through dry seasons was recommended for ranchmen. John Easley and Seth Alston were among the first to develop irrigation wells on their ranches.

A year or two later, Luke Roberts came to Lovington and bought out the Lovington paper. He was a real booster for irrigation and wrote and talked it continually from then on. His influence aided materially the development of irrigation and by 1934, there were forty or fifty wells in the county. From the start, irrigation has increased until today farming is a big industry and Lea County is one of the leading agricultural counties in the state. Not only cotton but truck crops, alfalfa, corn and grain sorghums and other crops are grown successfully. Some of the larger farmers have from 5 to 10 and 12 wells. J. P. Caudill and E. L. Harbison are two of the bigger operators. Along with improved farming operations went increased and improved dairy herds, farm flocks of sheep, hogs, poultry flocks. Boys and Girls 4-H clubs were organized throughout the county and they did their part to improve livestock, poultry and crop production. The girls learned to do home canning and other home practices. In 1923, Lea County sent demonstration teams to the State Club Encampment at State College. The cooking team composed of Edna Graham and Eunice James won first place in their cooking demonstration and were sent to Denver to put on their demonstration at the Western Livestock Show.

Twice, livestock judging teams won first place in the state and were sent to Denver to compete against teams from other states. One team composed of Bernard Love, Clifford and Floyd Gray won second place at the Western Livestock Show. Another livestock team composed of Edwin Byers, Graydon and Elves Caudill. ? was the high scoring individual in livestock judging contest.

Crop, poultry and sewing teams also won trips to the Western Livestock Show. Alva Caudill was given a trip to the National Livestock Show at Chicago in 1923 for his club work. Later, other club workers were sent to Chicago and Washington, D.C. for outstanding club work. Several farmers started keeping sheep on their farms from work done by their boys in sheep work.

While Lea County produced excellent range cattle and sheep, they wanted to improve what they had. Along with irrigation and improved farming practices went improvement in livestock. A trip was made with Jack Heard to Midland, Texas to study their livestock program in that section. As a result, a cattle breeding organization was formed and work done to improve range management and breeding methods. Several meetings were held at ranches where registered livestock was being raised and where range management was practiced.

One such meeting was held on the ranch of A. D. Jones, one of the most successful ranchers in the county. Registered cattle and sheep were displayed and good points to look for in breeding animals were pointed out. A pit barbecue dinner consisted of a beef animal and five or six sheep was served and over one thousand people attended the meeting. Range management with controlled grazing was discussed at each meeting held. The high quality of livestock and excellent ranges found in Lea County today is partially the results of this work.

Small land owners could not keep enough range cattle to produce needed income. They were advised to get dairy cows and sheep and raise poultry and hogs for more income. Several dairy herds were bought and brought into the county, and flocks of sheep were kept on many farms. Poultry flocks were increased and improved and more and better hogs raised.