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NMSU Research Examines Rosemary Farming Techniques

ARTESIA - A New Mexico State University researcher is looking at ways to increase yields of rosemary, a plant that is more often seen in residential landscapes than commercial farms, where it is commonly grown as an ingredient to preserve pet food.

New Mexico State University agronomist Robert Flynn, acting superintendent of NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia, checks newly planted rosemary sprigs at the center. Flynn is researching ways to make the antioxidant-producing plant a more profitable crop for farmers. (05/03/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

A perennial herb, rosemary is known for its fragrance and blue, lavender or white flowers. But the evergreen shrub is also grown as a spice and for the antioxidant content in its leaves, said NMSU agronomist Robert Flynn, acting superintendent of NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia. Fat sprayed on pet food to enhance flavor is preserved by the antioxidant found in rosemary leaves, Flynn said.

"It's a natural preservative," said Edward Ogaz, president of the family-owned Seco Spice, which operates a plant near Artesia to dehydrate chile, rosemary and carrots. The company owns one of the largest rosemary plantations in the country, covering about 300 acres in Roswell, Hobbs and Artesia. Ogaz said rosemary antioxidant is widely used as a preservative in human and pet food.

Four varieties of rosemary were planted this spring at the science center in a 1,400-plant plot that covers about a third of an acre. This fall, a sprig will be taken from each plant to start a second generation in the center's greenhouse. After the sprigs develop, they will be added to the research plot. That process will be repeated until the plot covers an acre.

Flynn's experiment comes at the request of Seco Spice.

"Seco is looking for efficient methods to make it more worth the farmers' while to grow it," Flynn said. Rosemary also is grown commercially in West Texas, south Texas and by a few farmers in the Pecos Valley who have established test plots of their own to learn rosemary growing techniques.

Flynn will examine ways to improve production, and to increase the amounts of antioxidant produced by the plants. Soil moisture sensors will be used to determine the rate of rooting and to measure the rate of water use.

The research will examine the differences among rosemary varieties in water use, fertilizer rates, harvesting techniques and the ability of the plants to retain a high antioxidant content after harvest.

Flynn said rosemary could be a good choice for a farmer who is looking for a drought-tolerant crop and is willing to wait a year while the plant becomes established. Ogaz said establishment costs are high - about $1,500-$1,600 an acre - but the perennial is expected to produce for eight to 12 years, with yields peaking in the fourth or fifth year.

The plant prefers poor soil, Ogaz said.

"It doesn't like water. It doesn't like fertilizer. It can make a bad farmer good."

Other than that, not much is known about rosemary cultivation, Flynn said.

"We're trying to help out the producer and the processor with something there's not much information on," he said.