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NMSU Broccoli Brigade explores new option for area's small farmers

A new collaboration between local growers and the New Mexico State University College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences could result in more broccoli on local dinner tables and more money in the pockets of Las Cruces area small farmers.

NMSU graduate student Alex Benitez, right foreground, shows volunteers how to transplant broccoli seedlings in his research plot at NMSU's Fabian Garcia Science Center. The plants from this field and from fields of several community collaborators will produce broccoli to be marketed commercially as part of an NMSU pilot project that strives to help local producers diversify their crops. Pictured with Benitez are: Amber Waugh, NMSU horticulture major, left foreground; Mark Uchanski, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, wearing hat; Kulbhushan Grover, also an assistant professor in PES, behind Uchanski; and Rachel Roybal, horticulture major in Grover's principles of crop production class, behind Benitez. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman.)

Broccoli seedlings in this NMSU pilot project, planted from seed in early July, are being transplanted from flats into fields this month, even as some other local vegetable crops are being harvested. Like other members of the mustard family, broccoli does best during the cooler spring and fall seasons in this climate zone.

Broccoli is not a crop that is commonly grown in the Mesilla Valley, which is one reason it was chosen for this demonstration project. The broccoli project is an example of NMSU outreach aimed at helping small producers diversify their operations by identifying, producing and marketing new crops. Broccoli is a popular and highly nutritious vegetable that has been shown through previous NMSU research to do well in southern New Mexico.

The project involves approximately 20,000 plants that are being transplanted into one NMSU field and at five other area locations. The harvest from these plants is likely to begin in late October or early November and may extend into December.

The project is being implemented by a team dubbed the "Broccoli Brigade" by Connie Falk, professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business. In addition to Falk, the NMSU team includes AEAB colleagues Eduardo Medina, small farm and ranch outreach coordinator, and Paul Gutierrez, Extension specialist; assistant professors Mark Uchanski and Kulbhushan Grover and master's student Alex Benitez, in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences; and John Idowu, Extension agronomist in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences. Community partners are Shahid Mustafa, manager of the Mountain View Market Co-op in Las Cruces, and Patricia Salas of the Colonias Development Council.

The Broccoli Brigade came into existence in early 2011.

"We were all getting together to talk about how to move the agenda of local agriculture forward," Falk said. "Shahid Mustafa, the G.M. of Mountain View Co-op, said he could sell all the broccoli we could produce and it was a pity we couldn't grow broccoli in Las Cruces, and I replied, 'Of course we can; we did for five years at OASIS.' And then we just started planning a broccoli project from there."
According to Falk, OASIS, or Organization of Aggie Students Inspiring Sustainability, is a student club at NMSU that began as an organic production class, which was also named OASIS (Organic Aggie Students Inspiring Sustainability).

"In that class, students learned the Community Supported Agriculture model of agriculture, and in five years grew more than 550 cultivars of organic vegetables, flowers and herbs," Falk said. "Broccoli was a successful crop at OASIS, which was taught during spring and fall seasons 2002-2006."

Uchanski and Falk also investigated season extension technologies in broccoli production for two years.

By mid-summer 2011, the Broccoli Brigade project, with a fall harvest in mind, had been fleshed out. Medina and Salas identified four community gardens and one private producer to participate as growers. Two of the community gardens, in Anthony and Chaparral, are affiliated with the CDC. Also participating are the Soil and Water District Youth Farm in Anthony and the SOLAR Garden in Chaparral. The private producer is Jesse Bustamante of Mesilla.

The main summer activity, July 7-8, was to start 22,000 broccoli plants from seed in plastic flats with the help of some of the local producers. The brigade chose Arcadia, one of the broccoli varieties OASIS had successfully grown, for the project. The seedlings were sheltered from the extreme heat and rain in the Fabian Garcia lath house for the September transplanting. An additional 4,000 seedlings were started in late August to help replace casualties lost to insect damage.

Information about this project, and about growing broccoli more broadly, has been incorporated into NMSU classes taught by some of the Broccoli Brigade members, and some of the students are involved in the project as volunteers. Some in Uchanski's vegetable crop management class and Grover's principles of crop production class have been among the individuals transplanting 13,000-14,000 broccoli seedlings in an organic research plot at NMSU's Fabian Garcia Science Center in Las Cruces. Uchanski oversees the plot, which he says was certified as organic in 2004 and has been maintained using organic principles since then.

The broccoli in this plot is involved in a replicated field experiment on broccoli fertility as part of Benitez's thesis project. All of it will be grown organically, with four fertilization treatments: fish emulsion injected through the drip irrigation system; locally available vermicompost applied as a side dress; a compost tea, made from the same compost material, applied through the drip system; and the control group with no fertilization. While Benitez doesn't expect the unfertilized plants to have a high yield, he thinks it is reasonable to expect some of the experimental rows to produce a pound of broccoli per plant.

The cooperating growers are not involved in replicated field trials, but will be using growing techniques appropriate to their operations. The local collaborators are supplying growing space and will share in the profits of a successfully grown crop. If all of the plots achieve optimal production, the team estimates the result will be between 12,000 and 14,000 pounds of broccoli harvested over several weeks' time.

Patricia Salas is a project coordinator for the Colonias Development Council and works with a "promotora" at each of the participating CDC community gardens.

"We got involved in the project after Eduardo Medina brought the opportunity to our attention," she said recently at the group's Las Cruces office. "We have participating families in both Anthony and Chaparral who are planting broccoli in their community garden plots, and the other families want to see how it turns out. We think it might be a good crop for backyard gardening, both as a healthy food for the families to consume and for them to sell at farmers' markets to increase their incomes."

Broccoli Brigade members assume that Mountain View Market will receive the bulk of the harvest. If the production is very robust, some of it may be passed on, through Mountain View's network, to La Montanita in Albuquerque for statewide distribution. According to Falk, some of the participating growers may arrange to market their harvest through other outlets.

"We've also been contacted by NMSU's food service," Falk said. "The new food service provider, Sodexo, is very interested in serving local food as much as possible, and so they are very interested in also purchasing some of the broccoli. We'd love to see some of it served on campus."

Economic analysis will be an important aspect of this project. If local producers are to be convinced that raising broccoli can be profitable in the Mesilla Valley, they will need to see the numbers. To this end, Falk and Gutierrez have been developing a cost-and-returns template.

The Broccoli Brigade does not expect growers to flock to broccoli immediately. They plan to repeat the project in the fall of 2012, involving what they hope will be a larger set of community collaborators. In addition, for broccoli to be grown on more than just a few acres, post-harvest handling infrastructure will need to be developed, because broccoli is usually iced soon after harvest to remove field heat and extend shelf life. Working out the logistical aspects of the enterprise, including storage, transport and broader marketing, will happen over the next couple of years.

"If we do well with the broccoli project, then we'll probably consider what the next crop is, in consultation with farmers and looking at what might sell well in the market. So it's a long-term kind of effort," Falk said.

For more information about the broccoli project, contact Eduardo Medina, emw@nmsu.edu, 575-621-1188. More information about activities at the Fabian Garcia Science Center can be found at http://fabiangarciasc.nmsu.edu/