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NMSU's Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center celebrates 50 years of research

LOS LUNAS - For 50 years, New Mexico State University College of Agriculture and Home Economics researchers have used the 200-acre experimental farm south of Los Lunas as a place to test various plants to see if they will grow in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

In 1957, the university leased the property on Miller Road, west of the New Mexico Correctional Department's honor farm, from the state penitentiary board of commissioners. The land was deeded to NMSU for agricultural research in 1973.

NMSU's Middle Rio Grande Experimental Substation, as it was called until 1986, relocated to Valencia County from the Five-Point area of Albuquerque's South Valley where it had been housed on 56 acres since 1937. The university moved the facility because housing development in the area prevented the farm from expanding.

Roger B. Corbett, then president of NMSU, said in a February 1957 press release that the "grant of tillable land is a fine contribution to the economic welfare and standard of living of the entire region. The acreage in Los Lunas is four times that of our substation at Albuquerque. So we will be able to do much more work on problems that are affecting farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley."

Harbour Jones was the farm's superintendent in Albuquerque and continued in that role in Los Lunas until 1973. Jones was responsible for developing the research facility, constructing the buildings, equipping the laboratory, laying out the test plots and developing other infrastructure.

Jones was honored in 1991 when the science center's renovated headquarters building was named for him during a ceremony at the annual field day.

From the beginning of its existence, the Los Lunas experimental farm housed and worked closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service's plant material center, where plants have been developed for mine reclamation, roadside beautification and riparian reclamation.

Ron Hooks, who followed Jones as the research farm superintendent and held the position until his retirement in 1996, recalls some of the significant research on crops for the Rio Grande Valley.

"Through the years we did significant horticultural work involving apples, grapes, peanuts, sweet potatoes, asparagus, pecans, various melons, chile and native plants for landscaping, as well as tested various varieties of farm crops such as alfalfa, corn and sorghum," he said. "The vegetable crop research at the farm was looking for things to help farmers to either get into the market earlier or have specialty items."

One such item was asparagus, which grew wild in the Middle Rio Valley. "We gathered data for four or five years on a variety developed in New Jersey called the Jersey Giant," Hooks said. "It was determined asparagus could be developed into a cash crop for valley farmers. It is a crop that comes on in spring and can get to the market earlier than other vegetables."

He added that they tried to extend the plants' growing season into the fall to reach the market at Thanksgiving time, but found the quality of product was not good and they had to give up on the project.

Along the way many research papers were written on the work done at the facility and many hybrids were developed and named, including the white-blossomed Hope desert willow that Hooks and Jones developed from a wild desert willow found at Hope, N.M., near Artesia, and developed for landscape and roadside beautification use.

Other significant research was done by David C.H. Hsi with the peanut variety Valencia A and Valencia C, which are still the primary varieties grown in New Mexico, and Roy Nakayama on chile varieties for the Middle Rio Grande Valley such as the Sandia A, Sandia B and Rio Grande 21, and the naming and release of the NuMex Big Jim variety.

After Hooks' retirement, various interim superintendents including Tony Romo, Valencia County's former Cooperative Extension agricultural agent, and Charles McGarrah, farm manager, handled the administrative duties prior to entomologist Mike English becoming the superintendent. English retired in August 2006.

Under English's supervision the farm focused on agricultural issues such as alfalfa weevil and crop rotation of alfalfa. Research on grapes was also started with the New Mexico Wine and Vine Association.

"As an entomologist my first goal was to look at insects affecting crops," English said. "We did DNA studies of the alfalfa weevils because their behavior was not like what the textbooks describe. We learned that the three strains of alfalfa weevils, Egyptian, Eastern and Western, are all in New Mexico, with Western being the majority."

The Los Lunas area is a good place to study grapes because both the French hybrids that grow in northern New Mexico and the vinifera, or the European grape, that is used for wine, raisins and table use and grows in southern New Mexico, thrive in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

"We got grape research revived in New Mexico," he said of the work on the half-acre vineyard. "Through the tests it has been determined the varieties that will prosper in our state and cuttings from our vines have been scattered all over the state."

The research facility also tested fescue as a rotational crop for alfalfa when the land needs to be laid out a couple of seasons from alfalfa to detoxify the soil. "Fescue proved to be better hay for horses because it has a lower protein level," English said. "We had some outstanding stands of fescue at the farm."

The Los Lunas facility is entering a new era with farm supervisor Tom Place stepping in as superintendent. Urban small farm specialist Ron Walser joined the staff during the fall of 2006 and has begun testing various varieties of fruits and berries to determine what could be alternative cash crops for the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

He is also conducting a vegetable garden irrigation study to determine which is more profitable, drip or traditional furrow irrigation.

Visitors to the annual field day on Wednesday, Aug. 15, will be able to view the latest work at the research facility. During the free event that will begin at 8 a.m., the 50th anniversary will be celebrated. Farm tours will follow after opening comments by Gerald Chacon, associate vice provost for NMSU's Outreach Services. Lunch will be served at noon.