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NMSU's Leyendecker science center to hold field day on hoop house vegetable production

If you haven't noticed much lettuce growing in gardens around the Las Cruces area recently, it could be because there isn't much to be found this time of year. It could also be that you didn't look in the right place.

Hoop houses in morning sunlight
Hoop houses soak up the winter sun at NMSU's Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center south of Las Cruces. The six structures at that facility, along with a dozen at other locations, are involved in research on extending the vegetable-growing season for small producers in New Mexico and southern Colorado. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)

New Mexico State University researchers are growing Trout's Back lettuce in the middle of winter in six hoop houses at the university's Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center near La Mesa. Along with colleagues at NMSU's science center in Alcalde and a few collaborating growers, Leyendecker researchers are exploring the viability of three hoop house designs in extending the state's vegetable-growing season.

To bring growers up-to-date on progress with the three-year study, NMSU will offer a field day from 9 a.m.-noon Thursday, Feb. 23, at the Leyendecker facility. The timing of the event will allow participants to see the fall-planted lettuce as it reaches a harvestable size.

Field day participants will find two examples of each hoop house design at Leyendecker. The simplest version has a single layer of plastic sheeting overlaying the PVC pipe frame; an intermediate design features a double layer of plastic and a fan to blow air between the layers, increasing the insulating properties of the structure; the top-end design is a double-layer version with the addition of a row of dark-colored 55-gallon drums filled with water, which absorb heat during the sunny hours and slowly release it during the night.

The project will not only include evaluation of how well vegetables grow in each type of hoop house, it will also involve analysis of various economic factors, including the cost of building and operating each version and the anticipated income from the sale of locally grown greens in the off-season.

"We invite people to come and see the kind of growth possible during the winter in these unheated structures," said Steve Guldan, the project's lead researcher and an agronomist in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. "Even with the short days and cold temperatures, the lettuce is growing fairly well inside the hoop houses."

Del Jimenez, NMSU Extension agriculture specialist with the Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project, has been developing low-cost hoop houses for several years and came up with the basic designs used in the study. The structures measure 16 by 32 feet and feature PVC pipe frames and translucent plastic sheeting. They are equipped with overhead sprinkler systems.

Jimenez will participate in the field day with a discussion of the construction and durability of the hoop houses; Guldan and Mark Uchanski, a horticulturalist in PES, will give an overview of crop and temperature results to date; and Juliette Enfield and Emmanuel Hecher, NMSU graduate students working on the hoop house project for their master's theses, will be available to answer questions about the day-to-day maintenance of crops and hoop houses.
The research is funded by a grant from USDA's Western Division of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.

The field day event is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be provided.

For more information, directions to the facility, or to RSVP, contact the Leyendecker center at 575-646-2281.