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Research Sweetens Fruit Production in Northern New Mexico

ALCALDE - Espaņola-based grower Don Bustos made local history last year as northern New Mexico's first commercially successful strawberry farmer.

Don Bustos checks strawberry plants on his 4.5-acre farm in Espaņola. He planted strawberries after NMSU research showed they could thrive in northern New Mexico despite cold winters and short growing seasons. (08/17/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

He planted about 7,000 strawberry sets in 2002. By June, his spring-bearing berries produced about 3,000 baskets, which he sold at the Santa Fe Farmers Market at $4 per basket.

"I invested about $3,000 and I made back about $12,000," Bustos said. "It was the best June I've ever had."

This year, Bustos expanded production to 12,000 strawberry sets. He added about 2,000 raspberry plants, marking another first among northern New Mexico producers.

"These crops offer real potential markets for me and other growers," Bustos said. "Until now, no commercial grower in the north had planted them. We're going in a totally new direction."

Like Bustos, small-scale growers throughout the north are slowly, but steadily diversifying their crops and adopting state-of-the-art technology based on research at New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde. The changes reflect a fundamental shift in local fruit production.

"We're introducing fruits and growing methods that are completely new to New Mexico," said Ron Walser, an NMSU fruit specialist directing the research. "Our fruit trials are having a huge impact in the north."

Walser is testing local adaptability of small fruits such as strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. He's also testing new cold-hardy apple varieties and late-blooming stone fruits such as peaches, cherries, apricots and plums.

"We want growers to plant more high-value specialty crops that bring greater financial returns per acre than traditional crops," Walser said. "That's important, because most fruit farms here are small 1- to 5-acre operations. For them to be sustainable, they have to become more profitable."

Walser tested 10 varieties of strawberries, seven types of raspberries and five blackberries. "They're all Eastern varieties that growers hadn't tried here before," Walser said. "Some of them really thrive in our environment."

Moreover, Walser is testing organic growing methods to add value to crops, plus innovative production techniques to increase yields.

Bustos, an organic grower who grosses about $90,000 annually from his 4.5-acre farm, says his strawberry venture is successful because he carefully followed NMSU recommendations. He chose Alcalde-tested varieties. He installed a drip irrigation system and then he covered the drip system and the plants with a woven plastic weed barrier.

The plastic cover eliminates weeds, protects against bugs and rot, and keeps soil moist and warm, Bustos said.

"Local growers have failed in the past with these fruits because they didn't choose the right varieties, and they didn't use the woven plastic cover," Bustos said.

Bustos expects to harvest between 6,000 and 7,000 baskets of strawberries this year. "I'll sell them again at $4 per basket, so I'm looking at about $25,000 or more from my strawberries this season," Bustos said.

Given Bustos' success, at least six other northern growers have already begun growing strawberries, raspberries and blackberries, Walser said. About 15 others will plant one or more of the fruits next season.

The research is also altering growing techniques at about two dozen apple and peach orchards, Walser said. Growers are choosing new cold-hardy varieties, planting dwarf rootstock for high-density production and adopting new pruning techniques to increase productivity based on NMSU recommendations.

In addition, Walser introduced a new microsprinkler system in 2002 that can cut water use in half compared with flood irrigation while protecting orchards from late-spring frost. Installed underneath trees, the sprinklers spray a mist of water that softly sinks into soil, avoiding runoff and evaporation. During a cold snap, the moisture gives off heat as it freezes, warming the orchard by 3 degrees or more, Walser said.

"Most years, just 2 to 3 degrees will keep frost from wiping out crops," he said. "That's particularly important in northern New Mexico. Growers lost about 85 percent of their apples last year to late-spring frost."

After learning about the new growing techniques, Lyden-based producer Walter Lea decided to replace his aging 180-tree apple orchard in 2002 with a new, high-density apple and peach orchard modeled on Alcalde research.

Using fast-growing dwarf rootstock, he planted nearly twice as many apple trees as before, and he managed to plant 400 closely sown peach trees by pruning them into "Y" shapes. That eliminates lateral branches, paving the way for high-density planting and greater yields. He also installed a microsprinkler system with soil moisture sensors.

All the trees have grown from 2.5 feet at planting to more than 8 feet now, and Lea said he's reduced water use by nearly 85 percent compared to flood irrigation. "I've never seen such rapid growth in just two years," he said. "It's phenomenal."

Lea expects about 700 boxes of apples per year by 2006, worth about $18,000. The peach trees will yield about 1,500 boxes by next season, worth about $30,000.

"I'll harvest about 500 boxes of peaches this year," he said. "With that alone I'll recoup most of my investment in the orchard."