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New Mexico Hay Association supports NMSU's Melton Endowed Professorship fund

It has been 150 years since the Morrill Act created a system of land-grant universities in the U.S., designed to teach scientific agriculture, expand the field through research, and support, through the states' respective Extension services, the broad dissemination of research findings.

Lois Melton, widow of legendary NMSU alfalfa breeder Billy Melton, talks to Mark Gladden (center), director of development for NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, and Joel Klein, president of the New Mexico Hay Association (right), during a break at the 2012 Southwest Hay and Forage Conference in Ruidoso. The organization's contribution of $15,000 to NMSU's Billy and Lois Melton Endowed Professorship fund had just been announced to conference attendees. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)

At New Mexico State University, the state's land-grant institution, agricultural research often involves extensive collaboration between researchers and growers - some faculty research actually takes place in producers' fields and orchards. Producers, including many NMSU alumni, are well represented on advisory boards of the university's agricultural science centers around the state and also make generous financial or in-kind contributions to the institution's research programs.

Recently the campaign to fund an endowed professorship for alfalfa research at NMSU reached a milestone with a $15,000 gift from the New Mexico Hay Association.

The occasion was the annual NMHA board meeting and dinner Jan. 25, as association members, university researchers and others gathered for the two-day Southwest Hay and Forage Conference in Ruidoso. NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service is a co-sponsor of the annual conference.

The NMHA gift will be added to the Billy and Lois Melton Endowed Professorship fund in support of permanent plant breeding, genetics and drought-tolerant alfalfa research at NMSU.

Endowed professorships at NMSU require a minimum of $250,000 to be fully funded. The NMHA gift, along with follow-up private donations from conference attendees, brought the total to $225,000, according to Mark Gladden, director of development for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

"The contribution from our friends at the New Mexico Hay Association means a lot to us," said Richard Pratt, head of the NMSU Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. "It is a real testament to our desire to work together and support each other. Together we can do so much more."

Alfalfa is New Mexico's number one cash crop. Along with other hay varieties, it accounts for a quarter of the state's cash receipts for crops, according to New Mexico Department of Agriculture statistics. In 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available, New Mexico hay was valued at more than $200 million.

Representing NMSU at the NMHA business meeting were Pratt; John Mexal, assistant department head; Gladden; and Lois Melton, wife of the late Billy Melton, longtime professor in the department and legendary alfalfa breeder.

The public announcement of the gift was made Jan. 26 after an afternoon conference session on NMSU's drought-tolerant alfalfa research. Gladden introduced Lois Melton, who was then joined on stage by board members Norman Rudd, Dan Kloss, Andy Otis and Joel Klein, the organization's current president.

"Funding this endowment is not just important to me in terms of honoring Bill - it is important for New Mexico and the world," Lois Melton said. "It really wasn't until after my husband's death in 2001 that I fully realized how important alfalfa is in the human food chain. Bill saw that the world is facing scarcity in food and water, and felt that developing alfalfa that can thrive on less water could make a positive impact on both fronts. Funding the professorship will ensure that this critical research can continue."

NMSU researchers have been working for nearly a century to develop varieties of alfalfa that are better suited to New Mexico's growing conditions. The university's Alfalfa Breeding and Genetics Program is currently headed up by Ian Ray, a professor in PES. He and his team are combining high-tech genetic analysis with traditional plant breeding practices in the development of varieties that are more tolerant to dry conditions.

The drought situation that prevailed in most of the Southwest last year resulted in a shortage of hay available for livestock - but it provided an ideal environment for Ray's research. Data from 2011 indicate that he and his team have been able to improve the performance of some experimental varieties of alfalfa by as much as 15 percent.

Producers who were successful in raising alfalfa this year have been selling it for record prices. This fact was emphasized by two past NMHA presidents, Jim Schwebach and Doug Whitney, at the hay conference's evening program. They expressed their hope that NMHA members who have prospered this year will recognize the importance of NMSU's alfalfa research to their livelihoods through additional personal gifts to the endowment.

"Endowed professorships constitute a powerful means of attracting and retaining distinguished faculty members involved in vital research areas, by providing permanent financial support for salaries and academic activities," said Gladden.

Yearly interest earned by the fully funded endowment is administered by the holder of the professorship to enhance his or her research endeavors, including the incorporation of graduate and undergraduate students into research projects. The principal in the fund remains untouched, thereby immortalizing an individual or company whose name is permanently linked to it. This results in a highly visible form of recognition that lives on from generation to generation.