By Jane Moorman
NMSU’s Alcalde Science Center Focuses On Small-Farm Profitability
Agriculture has always been a strong component of the custom, culture, tradition and language of the people of Northern New Mexico since the Pueblo Indians began farming in 1200 A.D. and the first European settlers arrived in 1598, led by Don Juan de Onate.
Research at New Mexico State University’s Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde is focused on making small-acreage farms profitable so the current generation may stay on land that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Through a unique partnership with the Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project (RAIPAP), which is housed at the Alcalde center, Cooperative Extension Service specialists are communicating the research findings to agriculture producers, especially minority farmers and ranchers.
“Our advisory board has given us a general direction to find higher-value crops and cropping methods that will allow their family farms and ranches to produce a living so they may stay in their family business,” said Steven Guldan, superintendent of the science center.
The center’s research, conducted by Guldan and alternative crop researcher Charles Martin, includes projects as wide-ranging as: learning how the irrigation transported in the earthen acequia irrigation system impacts the environment and recharges the aquifer along the Rio Grande; cultivating native plants for medicinal herbs and natural dyes; extending the growing season by inter-seeding forage crops with sweet corn and chile; and determining which variety of fruit and berries will thrive in the Northern New Mexico climate.
Acequia irrigation systems have been used since the Pueblo Indians began farming. In modern times, hydrologists have questioned if lining the ditches with cement would make water use more efficient. Through research led by Sam Fernald, NMSU associate professor of watershed management, data has been obtained to answer the question.
“We’ve looked at the seepage of ditches, the hydrology of the shallow groundwater, the seepage impact on water quality and the integrated flood-plain hydrology for sustainable agriculture and healthy ecosystems in river valleys of water scarce regions,” said Fernald, who was lead investigator of the six-year study.
“We have found that there are important issues people need to consider before they change how they manage the water in the Rio Grande Basin,” Fernald said. “The wisdom of the ancients was the starting point of our study. For generations people have believed that acequias are more important than just being used to water fields. They believed that the seepage affected the groundwater quality and recharged the aquifer. Now we have supporting data.”
In the center’s herb garden, Martin is demonstrating that native plants that have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries can be cultivated for mass production. The study has also included Asian and European herbs, such as Chinese wolfberry, cota or Navajo tea, Echinacea, evening primrose, puncturevine or goathead, lavender, mullein, skullcap and yerba del manso.
Some medicinal plants also can serve a dual purpose to make natural dyes. A study incorporating area fiber artists and NMSU agriculture marketing students has determined there is a viable economic development opportunity for dye plants.
Martin’s research has demonstrated that some herbs, depending on market demand, could provide an above-average per acre gross income for small-scale farmers. To educate specialty crop growers about opportunities in Asian medicinal herb production, Martin is working with nationally known herb experts to develop an online training module that growers may view to learn about risk management in the business of growing and marketing Asian herb crops.
“This is an opportunity for specialty growers to acquire a practical understanding of what it takes to grow Asian medicinal herbs that are used for acupuncture and oriental medicine,” Martin said. “Asian medicinal herbs offer unique and possibly lucrative new markets for organic specialty crop growers.”
Getting maximum yield from small acreage during the Northern New Mexico growing season is one of the goals of the Alcalde center research. One way is to inter-seed forages with sweet corn and chile.
“By planting annual forage crops between the rows of sweet corn or chile, it allows the farmers to have a second crop and extend the land’s use with winter and spring grazing,” Guldan said. “Many vegetable crops finish at frost time, but in this part of the state there are many days in the fall and early spring that might have nighttime frost but warm daytime temperatures. These forages can tolerate a certain amount of frost so they continue to grow in the fall. With oats, turnips, hairy vetch and winter rye we are able to extend the production season.”
Guests at the center’s field day – an annual open house to provide updates to the public – enjoy picking berries as they walk through the organic orchard that includes a four-year study of brambles conducted by Ron Walser, currently stationed at the Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center. The orchard still yields apples, peaches, plums, sweet and tart cherries and apricots, as well as table grapes in the vineyard area.
“Ron studied the various fruit varieties that can grow in this area. We did studies for the apple growers, and Ron developed recommendations for blackberries and raspberries in this climate and elevation. We are also demonstrating how to use a clover ground cover to put nitrogen into the soil. And we have a sprinkler system that helps prevent late frost damage,” Guldan said. “We have had several producers reaping the benefit of that research.”
Helping farmers be more profitable is the goal of the nine-member RAIPAP staff under the direction of Edmund Gomez.
“We are introducing ways that farmers and ranchers can be more profitable and helping them keep up with new federal and state policies that affect how they do business on a day-to-day basis,” Gomez said. The program received the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Extension and Education Service’s 2008 National Award for Diversity. “We are also providing the agricultural community access to USDA programs and technologies that can make their lives a lot easier.”
The staff includes Del Jimenez, agricultural specialist; Joseph Garcia, Eight Northern Pueblo agriculture agent; Jessica Lucero, 10 Southern Pueblo agriculture agent; Pat Melendrez and Ursula Rosauer, Extension natural resource agents; Lucia Sanchez, rural and community development agent; Judy Finley, agriculture and small business development agent; and administrative secretary Augusta Archuleta.
The projects range from organic wheat farming in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to helping produce healthier herds for the livestock growers association members. Researchers are helping Pueblo de Cochiti reestablish its alfalfa production after reclaiming the land damaged by the Cochiti Dam seepage; developing chemical-free insect control by reintroducing chickens to Santa Domingo Pueblo farmers; and helping the wool growers of Acoma and Laguna pueblos, Jicarilla Apache and Navajo tribes.
“Prior to our working with the wool growers, they were at the mercy of local trading posts, which bought their wool for 10 to 19 cents per pound,” Gomez said. “In 2007 the growers received an average of a dollar per pound by utilizing the methods taught by the project. The project sold more than 40,000 pounds of wool to a major warehouse thus increasing previous wool sales by more than 1,000 percent.”
Gomez sums up the purpose of both the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde and RAIPAP when he says, “We’re here to help farmers and ranchers any way we can to survive and continue with their customs, culture and traditions.”