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NMSU hosts Sustainable Agriculture Fellows on tour of New Mexico farms

LOS LUNAS ? A select group of cooperative extension service agricultural agents from across the country visited New Mexico State University?s Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas during a recent tour of sustainable agriculture operations in New Mexico.

People sitting on a red bench in a wagon
Mark Marsalis, superintendent at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas, explains the crop research being done at the center to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Fellows during a recent tour. The Cooperative Extension Service agriculture agents from across the country toured agricultural operations in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe area. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education?s Sustainable Agriculture Fellows visited agricultural operations in Albuquerque, Bosque Farms, Los Lunas, Edgewood, Moriarty, Medanales, Abiquiu, Santa Cruz and Tesuque Pueblo to see the various ways New Mexico farmers are dealing with the issues they face.

?The purpose of this tour was to show the Fellows examples of successful operations that are doing things that are either ecologically sustainable or economically sustainable, or both,? said Patrick Torres, NMSU Cooperative Extension Service interim Northern District department head.

?The Fellows program was established in 2007 as a way to give members of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents a two-year long experience of visiting all four SARE regions to learn more about sustainable agriculture principles and practices,? said Kim Kroll, associate director of the SARE program.

?Typically, a Fellows tour will run two or three days, and they will visit a variety of farms with the intention of learning more about farm operations,? Kroll said. ?Each evening, as a group, they discuss what they learned and share thoughts on how they will apply the various ideas.?

As a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, SARE?s mission is to advance, to the whole of American agriculture, innovations that improve profitability, stewardship and quality of life by investing in groundbreaking research and education.

The expectation from the SARE Fellows program is that the agriculture agents will return to their counties and implement the things they have learned.

?Also when they go to state or national association meetings, we hope they will share the knowledge they have gained from the trips,? Kroll said.

SARE Fellow John Porter from West Virginia said what he likes about the Fellows program is that it pulls all of the aspects of agriculture ? horticulture, environment, culture, economics ? into focus. ?A lot of people might focus on one area, but this program lets us see how all of these things come together and where some farms might be stronger in some areas than others.?

?It is always a pleasure to host a tour of people from the other regions of our country,? said Stephanie Walker, NMSU Extension vegetable specialist and New Mexico?s SARE coordinator. ?For some, the issues our farmers face, such as shortage of water, are very foreign.?

The agents visited the farm of Fidel Gonzales, an Agricultura Network farmer in Albuquerque?s South Valley; Skarsgard Farms, an organic farm that sells its produce directly to customers through a shares program, located in Albuquerque?s South Valley; DeSmit Farms in Bosque that produces raw milk from grass-fed cows; LaBatt Foods in Albuquerque, a wholesale food distributor; Schwebach Farms in Moriarty; Edible Exotics in Edgewood; Keenridge Farms in Edgewood; Farside Farms and Vineyard in Medanales, KJ Farms in Medanales; Camino De Paz Farm in Santa Cruz; and Tesuque Pueblo Farm in Tesuque Pueblo.

How the farmers deal with the threat of no irrigation water, or low rations, was of interest to the Fellows from the Midwest and eastern states.

?I found the agriculture in New Mexico to be quite interesting from the perspective of the Midwest,? said Nathan Winter of the University of Minnesota. ?I assumed certain things and found out it?s a little bit different. I was intrigued by the way the farmers adapt to very little moisture, and how they figure out ways to grow crops.

?Despite their challenges,? Winter continued, ?the farmers here are still very optimistic even though they don?t necessarily know how much water they are going to get, and when they are going to get it. They have the same passion for agriculture you will see from corner to corner in this country?

?In Wisconsin, we take our water for granted, so the idea that a producer?s water might be cut off is something we don?t even imagine,? said Jennifer Blazek from the University of Wisconsin. ?You hear about water rights and the issues on the news. But when you hear farmers say, ?My water gets cut off and that affects my business,? it really makes the concept of water shortage a real issue.?

What surprised Tianna Dupont of Penn State was the amount of water farmers receive each year.

?Even with the limited water resources, they could get 30 to 40 inches of irrigation water per year,? she said, ?which is similar to what we are getting annually from rainfall.?

Another aspect of the environment that surprised the Fellows was the late frosts in early May.

?I kind of assumed the area had a warmer climate all year round,? Winter said. ?I didn?t realize spring frost was problematic.?

?I am kind of surprised that the climate here is similar in a lot of ways to southwestern Oregon that has a fairly low rainfall and a late frost dates. I thought New Mexico would have a longer growing season,? said Maud Powell of Oregon State University.

?I?m interested in the jujube fruit trees research,? she said of the orchard she saw at NMSU?s Los Lunas farm. ?I don?t know of any producers growing that crop, but I actually think it would be a crop that would do really well in my area because of the tree blossoms later than other fruits.?

The resourcefulness of the farmers to produce crops while facing various challenges intrigued the Fellows.

Gonzales? backyard farm, a small-acreage operation, is a good example of how a farmer is able to utilize every inch of his property with the use of hoop-houses. The less-expensive greenhouses extend the growing season so Gonzales is able to generate maximum income within the restrains of small acreage.

?There are a lot of people who have a half acre of land that is not in use ? it?s just growing weeds,? said Matt Palmer from Utah State University of his clientele. ?I want to build a hoop-house at my demonstration farm, to show small-scale, backyard-type of produce that they can grow and sell locally.?

?A lot of these farmers are being so creative at thinking outside of the box to address different problems on their farms,? said Laura Warner of Florida State University. ?Sustainability means figuring out a way to make it work. I?m thinking introducing problem-solving techniques would be a route to sustainable agriculture for some of my clients.?