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New Mexico State University

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NMSU's Small Farm Institute to help farmers, ranchers maintain economic viability

Agriculture continues to play an important cultural, economic and environmental role in the survival of people in New Mexico, even as more and more producers today downsize to smaller acreage farms and ranches. With many producers struggling to maintain economic viability, New Mexico State University is beginning to set into motion a program to help producers' livelihoods be the best that they can be.



The Small Farm Institute recently purchased a tractor using capital outlay funds for the agricultural program. From left are: Jeanine Chavez Castillo, Mark Uchanski, Jeff Graham and Kulbhushan Grover. (Photo courtesy of Jeanine Chavez Castillo)

The Small Farm Institute aims to build a corridor of expertise and experience for small farm and ranch producers in order to help them create sustainable agriculture systems and improve their profitability.

"The New Mexico State University Small Farm Institute is unique in that it was specifically created to serve the needs of small farms and ranches in New Mexico, which are a majority of the state's agricultural production," said Jeanine Chavez Castillo, coordinator of the institute.

The state is home to 17,000 small farms and ranches.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a small farm is defined as an operation with annual receipts less than $250,000. About 90 percent of the state's farms are considered "small," with 50 percent having less than 50 acres and 25 percent operating on less than 10 acres of land.

The institute combines research and education, as well as outreach, in order to provide resources and training to producers of small farms and ranches to help them maintain good crop production practices, no matter the size of the land.

Even though the number of farms in the state has risen over the past few years, the amount of the acreage has declined, said Mark Uchanski, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. He attributed the shift to increased urbanization and the loss of portions of family farms to development.

For example, the average acreage for fresh market chile in 2002 was 22 acres. In 2007, that number dropped to 6-1/2 acres. Uchanski said he believes this trend will continue for the next few years, at the same time the institute will be getting fully off the ground.

"Las Cruces is expanding and growing into outer mesas, but it is also growing into the valley, which means things might get fragmented even further. We'll have true micro farms. Because of the shift, there will be even more interest in what the Small Farm Institute can do to serve those micro, or, small farms," he said.

Jeff Graham, the owner of Mysterious Horizons Farm, said funding has already been secured to help the startup process of the institute. Graham attended the 2007 session of the New Mexico Legislature and secured $64,000 for staffing of the program, as well as $105,000 for capital outlay that will be used for such things as purchasing equipment, and constructing a greenhouse and drip irrigation system.

To get the program started, faculty involved in the institute are focusing on the Alcalde Sustainable Agriculture Center and the Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas, as well as the Fabian Garcia Science Center and Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center at the Las Cruces campus.

"We're trying to build a corridor between us and Los Lunas, which has a higher elevation and a little smaller farm and a little more diverse land ownership,' said John Mexal, interim department head of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

Specialists will be available to small farm and ranch producers to answer questions, organize programs and conduct research in an effort to help producers find and maintain their niche in the farming and ranching business, including focusing on specialty crops. In an effort to help producers get the most out of their crops, specialists will help them find high-value products to grow, such as horticulture crops and organic produce. Consumer demand is growing for locally produced goods and services. By growing and selling their goods locally, producers will also reduce their carbon footprint.

Kulbhushan Grover, who has recently joined NMSU as an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, said, the institute will be a good way to bring trainers to the people who need assistance. Grover will spend a portion of his time working with the institute, teaching agroecology.

The institute will complement and support the Small Farm Task Force in northern New Mexico, an Extension program that provides resources to help sustain rural family life, as well as small farm research already under way at the Alcalde science center.

"We're using them as a model," Uchanski said of the task force. "They've been extremely successful so obviously, we don't want to duplicate their efforts, but we're using them as a model and cater to the corridor, at least initially, of the Rio Grande."

The institute will spread to all parts of the state in time. Plans are to coordinate summer camps and credited classes in sustainable agriculture in the future.

Graham said a long-term goal of the institute is to secure land at the Las Cruces campus to construct the Sustainable Agriculture Research-Education Center that could eventually be a place for students, working in conjunction with Doņa Ana Community College, to earn a degree in sustainable agriculture. A student-run garden also will be a part of the center to give students hands-on experience in farm work.

"The institute will serve as a hub of information to connect farmers and ranchers with the resources and scientific information they need to be successful," Chavez Castillo said.

Chavez Castillo said they are at a point now where she is linking resources with contacts and also is reaching out to producers of small farms and ranches to see what kinds of services they need or would like to see through the institute.

Anyone with questions about the institute can call Chavez Castillo at (575) 202-8728 or email at rjeanine@nmsu.edu.