By Jane Moorman
New Mexico State University’s Farmington Agricultural Science Center is helping to turn the Four Corners region green through agricultural, environmental and economic development.
“As the only agricultural research facility in the state that is on the western side of the Continental Divide, we have provided science-based information since 1966 for large and small agricultural producers, industrial operators interested in natural resource management, rural and urban home owners, and interested growers in the Four Corners region,” said Rick Arnold, Western Society of Weed Science 2010 Fellow and superintendent of the center.
NMSU’s faculty at the center, which is located on 254 acres leased from the Navajo Nation, has assisted the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry in turning the semi-arid high plateau of the northeastern Navajo Nation into a major agricultural producer. In the past eight years, annual net returns have been about $5 million.
Farming 58,000 acres in a variety of crops, including alfalfa, potatoes, pinto beans, corn and wheat, NAPI has 110 year-round employees, and up to 300 employees during the growing season. It contributes approximately $200 million to the Four Corners region annually through direct procurements and pass-through purchasing. Additionally, the company contributes about $2 million to the Navajo Nation, including funding for scholarships and educational opportunities.
“We conduct variety tests of crops to help determine which hybrid will grow in our environment,” Arnold said. “This information helps NAPI and area crop producers decide what to raise.”
Through the years, Farmington ASC has conducted trials and agronomic research in a variety of crops, and that research has produced results for growers. Since the mid-1960s, average county yield of alfalfa has increased from three to more than five tons per acre; corn has gone from 55 to 154 bushels per acre; and wheat has jumped from 35 to 110 bushels per acre.
Recent variety research has been conducted on alfalfa, corn, dry beans, potatoes, canola, onions, pasture grass, winter wheat, spring oats, grapes, hops, medicinal herbs, hybrid poplar trees and landscape tree species, as well as irrigation water-use studies on tomatoes, chile, sweet corn and canola.
Variety trials are not all that Farmington’s researchers do. Located in an area with annual precipitation of 8.19 inches, it is crucial that agricultural irrigation operations be as efficient as possible.
Since 1983, NMSU college professor Dan Smeal has performed water-related research to determine water use/production functions of the primary crops in the area. The research has determined consumptive use indexes and efficient water application strategies on crops including tomato, chile, potatoes, winter and spring grains, beans, corn, alfalfa, pasture and buffalo gourd.
Smeal has studied and demonstrated ways for small-area gardeners, who must transport water, to raise produce with a low-cost, low-pressure drip irrigation system.
“It is so simple,” Smeal said of the gravity-driven system that requires a reservoir six feet above ground level, distribution pipe and emitters, all of which can be very basic or extravagant depending on funds.
“This system was created for farms with limited water resources in underdeveloped countries, such as Africa and India, to help them grow crops in an efficient way. People wishing to raise a garden in the remote areas of the Navajo Reservation face similar conditions,” he said. “The system can also be used to distribute water to gardens from elevated rainwater catchment collectors.”
The research determined how much water was needed for optimal production of chile and tomatoes.
Smeal is the project leader on the xeriscape research and demonstration garden where he has collected data on plant specimen water requirements. More than 100 plant species receive water through a micro-irrigation system at four different rates – no water, 20 percent, 40 percent and 60 percent of reference evapotranspiration.
Residents and visitors to the Four Corner region can take a self-guided walking tour of the garden to help make plant selections for their own gardens and yards. Groups such as Master Gardeners and the Native Plant Society have visited.
Farmington ASC has played a key role in improving the success of revegetation on disturbed land from oil and gas exploration and transmission in the San Juan Basin, one of the most prolific gas-producing regions of the United States.
The Bureau of Land Management, which regulates how the land is treated after drilling is completed, turned to Arnold for help in developing a mix of native and non-native grasses that are adapted to the soil and climate of the region. The plants had to germinate and be established while using the produced water from the coal bed methane gas well sites.
The grass mix Arnold suggested to the BLM includes Arriba western wheatgrass, Hy Crest crested wheatgrass, bottlebrush squirreltail, Paloma Indian ricegrass, San Luis slender wheatgrass and some four-wing saltbush. Once the grass mix was determined it was tested on six well sites. BLM has established specifications regarding the quantity of each type of grass required at each disturbed site.
Looking to the future, Farmington ASC is conducting a wide range of research. The center is participating in the National Winter Canola Variety Trial being conducted at 63 locations in 24 states. Michael Stamm, assistant agronomist at Kansas State University, is coordinating the study, which is evaluating the performance of released and experimental varieties to determine where they are best adapted.
“So far it looks like this area is very good for winter canola compared to other areas in the country,” said Curtis Owen, the NMSU research assistant responsible for NMSU’s portion of the study.
“Winter canola variety performance has really excelled in northwestern New Mexico,” Stamm said. “The environment at Farmington, with its plentiful irrigation and high elevation, is ideal for winter canola to show its true yield potential. So far, this has been one of the highest yielding environments of the trial.”
In 2009, Farmington’s fields had a two-year average yield of 3,969 pounds per acre, or 79 bushels per acre, with the highest yielding variety averaging 106 bushels per acre.
“This was the highest yielding environment out of 29 harvested locations of the 2009 variety trial,” Stamm said.
In recent years, the science center has also collaborated with the University of Nebraska, Kansas State University and Sustainable Oils, LLC, in renewable energy research on oilseed crops, such as sunflowers, canola and camelina for oil content, crop yield and weed management.
In 2002, Mick O’Neill, NMSU agronomist, began biomass research on hybrid poplar adaptations to the Four Corners region. Collaborative hybrid poplar research has been with Oregon State University, Washington State University, Greenwood Resources and ZeaChem.
Potential uses of the wood range from home use on the Navajo reservation to wood fiber as excelsior for cooling pads or soil conservation blankets placed along road cuts. The wood can be used as a biofuel, either as co-fired fuel for the Four Corners power plants or in a cellulosic conversion process to make ethanol.
NAPI has planted two 100-acre plots of the trees to see what will develop economically when the trees mature.
One role of the center is to explore alternative crops for the area. Horticulturalist Kevin Lombard, in collaboration with NMSU viticulturalist Bernd Maier and Bruce Reisch of Cornell University, has initiated wine and table grape research to examine cultivars for high elevation sites and comparison of similar cultivars at other statewide locations.
Hops research has been established in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Hops Germplasm Center in Corvallis, Ore.; Todd Bates of Taos; Three Rivers Brewery in Farmington; and other brewers in Durango, Colo., to address Four Corners brewer needs.
Additional projects at Farmington ASC include horticulture therapy using gardens to address a regional diabetes problem, a Southwest and Chinese medicinal herb study for potential niche market productions, and a Rio Grande Basin Initiative project to develop educational materials and a website to address urban water conservation needs.