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Year-round production of leafy greens new study at NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde

ALCALDE, N.M. - Is it possible to economically grow leafy greens during the agricultural winter off-season in New Mexico? A research project answering this question will be on display during the field day at New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde Wednesday, Aug. 11.

The event, from 7:30 a.m. to noon, will include walking tours of the experimental farm, where visitors will learn about the center's research in fruit trees, acequia agricultural hydrology and specialty crops. A free lunch will be served at noon.

Also, a wide variety of displays will be exhibited by various agriculture-related organizations, including U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies, the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission and the New Mexico Apple Council.

"One of our local producers and science center advisory committee members, Don Bustos in Santa Cruz, expressed the need for more research on year-round vegetable production," said Steve Guldan, NMSU agronomist and superintendent of the Alcalde science center. "Growers would like an economical way to eliminate the gap in production that occurs during the cold winter months so they can market to year-round customers."

The three-year study, which is funded by a Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant, is looking at using passive-solar-heated high tunnels, commonly called hoop houses, as a way to continue production during winter months.

Data is being gathered from hoop houses located at two NMSU research centers - the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde and Leyendecker Plant Science Center in Las Cruces -- and at several other locations in southern Colorado, northeastern Arizona and the Sandia Mountain area of New Mexico.

"Leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, which are fairly winter-hardy, can survive during most days in northern New Mexico, but it's the severe temperature drop of nighttime that can kill the plants," said Guldan. "So we are looking at ways to use the affordable hoop houses with passive solar heating to see if we can maintain a temperature range in which the plants will produce or be productive."

The researchers at Alcalde and Las Cruces are experimenting with three solar-heat collection methods used with affordable hoop houses. The least expensive method is a single layer of translucent plastic covering on a 16-foot by 32-foot hoop house structure. The second method is using two layers of translucent plastic with air blown between the layers.

The third method is retaining solar heat from daylight in black water barrels inside the structure, where they absorb and store heat from sunlight, then radiate heat back into the structure during the night.

It will also be determined if additional protection, such as row cover, will be needed.

"When you are talking about economical methods, sometimes it's worth the cost of the system to prevent total loss of the crop to freezing," Guldan said. "We will be doing a cost analysis to determine which method is the most economical."

In addition to growing lettuce and spinach, the researchers are gathering data throughout the winter to compare the soil and air temperature inside and outside the structures to see if the passive solar systems could be used for other crops.

"We selected lettuce and spinach for this study because these crops tend to be fairly winter-hardy," Guldan said. "But these passive solar collection systems could be used for other crops. From the data that is gathered, we will be able to determine what those crops could be."

NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde is dedicated to conducting research on sustainable agriculture and related issues to benefit small family-owned farms and ranches of north-central New Mexico.

The science center is located in Alcalde, which is 33 miles north of Santa Fe and 38 miles south of Taos on N.M. 68. The Alcalde staff request that visitors do not bring dogs onto the farm property unless they are guide dogs.