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Dino Cervantes, a local farmer, chile processor and New Mexico State University alumnus, has been named this year’s inductee in the NMSU Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, NMSU’s Arrowhead Center and the Office of the Vice President for Research announced this week.
“Dino Cervantes is a powerful example of the entrepreneurial spirit in New Mexico,” said Tracey Bryan, chair of the Arrowhead Innovation Network Advisory Council, which selected Cervantes from among numerous nominations. “A fourth-generation farmer, he’s capturing the full value of the richness of the crops grown in the Mesilla Valley as a grower, commercial producer, innovator and supporter of a broader coalition of growers.”
Bryan said Cervantes has become a national voice for the chile industry and also serves as a mentor and encourager of other entrepreneurs in his home community of Las Cruces and Doña Ana County.
"I’ve known Dino since we were children,” said Sally Stahmann-Solis, owner and operator of Stahmann Pecans & Farm. “His love for agriculture and his community comes from the heart.”
After Cervantes graduated from NMSU with a bachelor’s degree in business, his first interview on campus landed him a position with Hormel, sending him to Dallas for five years, then to California for two years. With an offer from Hormel to move to the Midwest, Cervantes’ parents asked him to return home and manage the family operation.
Cervantes Enterprises, Inc. consists of a chile processing facility and a 1,400-acre farming operation that produces chile, cotton, pecans and alfalfa. The Cervantes family has grown and processed various types of chile peppers but discovered their specialty during a downturn.
Cervantes recalled that his father, Orlando, had been growing vegetables but needed a new path when commodity prices dropped in the 1970s. Orlando Cervantes came up with an idea to grow chile peppers, and contacted the McIlhenny Company, producers of the Tabasco brand hot sauce, to find out if he could grow peppers for them. While suppling fresh peppers to McIlhenny, the Cervantes farm had a bumper crop, which was more product than McIlhenny could handle.
“He contacted McIlhenny and asked how they made pepper mash, the base for the hot sauce, then pushed alfalfa out of a barn, set up an old meat grinder and got started,” Dino Cervantes said. It was homegrown innovation that set up a new line of business.
Cervantes was in middle school when his family began processing chile. When Cervantes returned from his time with Hormel, he realized they were going to have to commit fully to food processing to be successful.
“In retrospect, my time at Hormel certainly helped me formulate many of the decisions I made,” Cervantes said. “We were fortunate and well positioned to take advantage of the exponential growth in the hot pepper industry that really started three to four years after I returned.”
In addition to the farming side of the business, which Cervantes continues to manage, the food-processing operation now processes in six minutes what it produced that entire first day in the barn. The company now sells its products to most major hot sauce, wing sauce and spicy food manufacturers worldwide.
“Entrepreneurship wasn’t a term ever used when I was starting in my professional career. Innovation kind of grew organically out of what you were doing,” Cervantes said. “It’s something farmers or people in agriculture seem to do pretty well. Most of the things that have made us successful are small incremental changes throughout the years that most observers would not notice.”
Cervantes has gone on to support NMSU and mentor young entrepreneurs through Arrowhead Center.
“One of my pieces of advice is to be self-aware and be honest with yourself. What are your strengths and weaknesses? That will direct you in the avenues to pursue and get your hands dirty,” he said. “Then, have patience. There are different paths to achieve success. People get caught up in the idea that you have to have a specific degree, but it’s about commitment and your expectations on where you want to land.”
Cervantes said his family owes a great deal to the community and to NMSU, where he met his wife, Leslie, and started his career. Leslie Cervantes is associate vice president for alumni, board and donor relations with the NMSU Foundation.
“Dino Cervantes is a true leader in his industry and in his community,” said Jim Libbin, professor emeritus of NMSU’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business. He and his entire family have been very generous in giving time, talent and energy to the benefit of others throughout Las Cruces and New Mexico. Dino is always available with a ready smile to provide wise counsel. He truly exemplifies a giving spirit.”