Organic fruit and herb trials, water-efficient irrigation, cold-frame production, mobile chicken houses, that's what local farmers have come to expect from Ron Walser and Del Jimenez, the fruit guy and vegetable guy respectively, of the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde. The pair and their colleagues at the Center concentrate on improving existing farming practices and bringing innovative new ideas to the small farmers of New Mexico.
The Center, a project of New Mexico State University, conducts research on certified organic plots that grow everything from apples, table grapes, berries and a variety of stone fruits like apricots, peaches and cherries, to chile, alfalfa and other crops. There are 13 such centers in the state, with Alcalde focusing on northern New Mexico's unique climate, terrain and tradition of small, isolated family farms.
But that doesn't stop individuals from southern New Mexico from attending the Center's (mostly) free workshops on everything from medicinal herbs to greenhouse construction. Their raison d'être is to give options to the family farmer, livestock producer or orchard grower, in a bid to keep food local.
"We're really lucky to have them," says Jenny Albert, a Santa Cruz resident whose farm doesn't have a name, though she's mulling Good Little Farm or Three Dog Farm. "Resources up here are so limited, communication is so limited. I know I can always call them up with questions, or just to visit about how the season is going."
Albert, who grew up in the area, left and moved back four years ago, started from scratch. She says working her farm is one of the most isolating things she's ever done. The Alcalde Center is like a lifeline, where she can bounce ideas, ask for suggestions on what she should grow or raise on her land, or just chat. They'll even assist farmers with the implementation of projects, also free of charge.
"The guys at Alcalde are great at putting people together. I was looking to raise the lambs for meat, not wool, and to graze the pastures. Del put me in touch with a sheep breeder in Colorado. I started with two ewes and a ram, and now I have eight," she says.
Using plans and construction techniques developed at the Center, Albert replaced her traditional irrigation ditches with collapsible pipe that is easy to maintain and use. Jimenez gave her ideas for portable electric fences that she can move herself to pen the sheep and chickens, rather than trying to erect and maintain more permanent structures. "I've been to other states and those folks there don't get the kind of support that we do. There's always help for big farms, but not a lot for smaller, independent farmers. I'd like to stay small and Del and Ron are tuned into that."
Albert now has successful raspberry and blackberry patches, and mobile chicken pens that she moves around the pastures. The chickens eat the cover crops and pasture grasses, as well as insects, and scratch their manure into the soil. This in turn provides ready-made fertilizer for the plants. Her chickens, some 30 at last count, give eggs that she sells at the Dixon and Santa Fe Farmers' Markets.
"Which market I go to depends on what's ready to harvest, and whether I've weeded. Just going to market is stressful, since I'm by myself. I'll probably do heirloom tomatoes this year, and berries and eggs. I couldn't do any of it without the livestock, though. They are my weeders, mowers and they eat the bugs."
Ron Ice was harvesting early lettuces and radishes from within his greenhouses at his Los Luceros farm as early as late March. He learned how to construct them from an Alcalde Center workshop this winter. These low-cost, solar-heated greenhouses, known as cold frames or hoop houses, extend the season for farmers in northern New Mexico. Usually limited to about a five-month growing season, users of cold frames can extend the season to nine.
The design is efficient, and leaves no waste from the lengths of two-inch PVC and rolls of heavy plastic. Each 17 by 32 foot house is pitched so a person can stand up inside it, and the sides roll up for ventilation. "I designed a hoop house myself last year, but it was a disaster. The wind blew it over and broke the PVC. The one designed by the Center is great. Ron and Del even came out and helped us put the covers on the houses. But that's just an example of how much they care about us doing well," Ice says.
Ice, whose wife Gayle uses the herbs and vegetables from the greenhouses in her Los Luceros tearoom, has attended workshops at the Center for three years on everything from pruning to irrigation to which vegetable and fruit varieties grow best in local conditions. "Del often comes by to see how things are going. He told us which varieties of strawberries to use, how we could improve our irrigation process and use less water. I can't say enough about how helpful he is," concludes Ice. Expect to see Ice's fresh herbs, vegetables and berries at the Santa Fe and Los Alamos Farmers' Markets. Exploring how farmers in other states are faring is another service that the Center provides. Gene Lopez of Gene Lopez Orchards in Lyden visited the San Francisco area at the end of February with a group of local farmers, coordinated by the Alcalde Center. "We visited several organic farms, including strawberries and lettuce, and saw an organic cattle ranch, dairy and cheese producer. We got some ideas for our own place, which grows vegetables, berries, chile and fruit to sell at the Taos and Española Farmers' Markets," Lopez says.
Lopez has implemented composting techniques he learned from the center that reduce his need for commercial fertilizer, and has been especially pleased with a workshop on disrupting the mating cycle of coddling moth, a pervasive pest in fruit orchards.
On the horizon for Walser is continued research into late-blooming stone fruit. "That extra week can make the difference between surviving a late spring frost or losing a whole crop of fruit," says Walser. Walser's efforts have already resulted in apple varieties like ginger gold, red free, gala and golden supreme that are increasing in demand because of their quality and suitability to the area's cool nights and sunny days.
This year, Walser demonstrated the water efficiency of drip irrigation and under-tree microsprinklers, and how those systems can protect fruit against late-spring frost, by spraying a gentle mist of water on the orchard floor. In addition to avoiding runoff, the moisture gives off heat, warming the orchard, Walser says.
Finding the ideal varieties, techniques and processes by scientific experimentation is the heart of the Alcalde Center, and a key factor in the success of local farmers, whose bounty we so enjoy at our farmers' markets.