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Colonial Heritage Orchard Preserves Old Fruit Varieties in Northern New Mexico

DIXON - Estevan Arellano, a 55-year-old journalist and grower from Embudo, has spent a decade researching traditional agriculture in northern New Mexico. Now, his writings are springing to life as part of a new, living-history museum where dozens of old Spanish fruit varieties found throughout New Mexico will be preserved for generations to come.

NMSU fruit specialist Ron Walser and Embudo grower Estevan Arellano stand under a 100-year-old apple tree on land behind the Embudo Valley Library in Dixon where NMSU will cooperate with local growers to establish a colonial heritage orchard to preserve old fruit varieties brought to New Mexico by the Spaniards. (12/09/2002) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Kevin Robinson-Avila)

"It's been my dream to save as many of the old varieties as possible before they die out, because that fruit is a big part of our cultural heritage," said Arellano, who maintains a 2.5-acre orchard in Embudo on land his ancestors received under a 1725 Spanish land grant. "There are so many varieties of apples and other fruit brought here from the Iberian Peninsula via Spain and Mexico. We want to preserve them before it's too late."

Arellano is working with specialists from New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Research Center at Alcalde to plant a colonial heritage orchard in Dixon that will serve as a nursery where growers can reproduce old fruit varieties and children and adults can learn about New Mexico's agricultural history.

"There are efforts underway in other states to save old heirloom varieties, but not in New Mexico, so we're going to preserve the old stock by grafting it onto new rootstock in a special orchard set up for that," said Ron Walser, an NMSU horticulturist and fruit specialist at Alcalde.

Walser will lead a team effort with Arellano and others to search for heirloom orchards along the old Camino Real, the Royal Road that ran from Santa Fe to central Mexico in Spanish colonial times.

"As the Spaniards moved along that trail, they planted orchards everywhere," Walser said. "People have old varieties growing in their backyards and they often have no idea what the varieties are or where they came from. We want homeowners to help find and identify varieties and allow us to collect wood from their trees for grafting."

Walser said there could be more than 100 different heirloom fruit varieties-including apples, apricots, and pears-scattered along the Camino Real. There are also some old stone fruit trees such as cherries, plums and peaches, but they're harder to find because the trees have shorter life spans and many have died out.

The team will receive technical assistance from Tomás Martínez Saldaña, an agriculture and rural history professor at Mexico's prestigious Universidad Agrícola de Chapingo. Martínez Saldaña has researched agricultural development along the Camino Real during Spanish rule and can help identify old fruit varieties, Arellano said.

However, identification may often be impossible, Walser said. In those cases, the heirloom varieties will be named after their owners.

Apart from preserving the state's cultural and agricultural history, heirloom varieties can offer growers a niche market if propagated, Walser said. Many heirloom apples have died out because modern producers grow apples that can be easily stored and shipped and look appealing to consumers, even though they're inferior in flavor to old varieties.

"Heirloom apples are just excellent, extremely tasty fruit," Walser said. "They're also well adapted to the local environment with disease resistance and excellent cooking and processing qualities. More and more consumers want to go back and try the old varieties, so there's a growing niche market."

The orchard will be planted on a 2-acre plot behind the Embudo Valley Library in Dixon, where some unidentified varieties of apple, peach and cherry trees have been growing for more than 75 years, Walser said. NMSU will plant about 50 fast-growing rootstocks that should bear fruit within three years, and then the team will begin grafting heirloom varieties onto those trees.

Arellano said the orchard will become an "edible park" for visitors, where homeowners and growers can get woodcuttings for grafting on their own property. The library will also house books on traditional agriculture and the acequia (ditch irrigation) system, creating a community learning center on agriculture for children and adults.

"Kids today think their food just comes from the local supermarket," Arellano said. "This orchard will allow us to preserve our history and cultural heritage while teaching our kids about the past."

For more information, call Walser at (505) 852-4241, or send e-mail to rwalser@nmsu.edu.