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New Mexico, agricultural history to be celebrated at NMSU's Leyendecker science center

When you tour the test plots at New Mexico State University's Leyendecker research farm south of Las Cruces on Saturday, Aug. 25, try imagining this scenario: a fungus is undermining this year's cotton crop. Farmers are worried they won't produce enough to make ends meet, even as the laws of supply and demand threaten to drive up the price of "the fabric of our lives."

In the late 40s and early 50s, an NMSU scientist named Philip Leyendecker did extensive research at NMSU agricultural science centers and cooperating private farms, studying such a fungus, Verticillium wilt, and its effects on cotton. Some inventive cultivation practices came out of Leyendecker's research, and that information was not just published in obscure scientific journals but was also shared with New Mexico's cotton growers.

That underscores an important truth about NMSU and other land-grant colleges and universities: research, particularly agricultural and scientific research, is at the heart of their mission to serve the public good.

To that end, NMSU purchased another farm for research purposes in 1969 and eventually named the new agricultural science center in honor of this ambitious researcher who had gone on to serve in several leadership roles within NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics, as it was then known. The formal name of the 200-acre farm tucked off Highway 28 south of Mesilla is the Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center.

"NMSU is still carrying out important research at the farm today," said Tracey Carrillo, assistant director of campus farm operations and superintendent of both the Leyendecker and the Fabian Garcia agricultural science centers. "We're creating innovative strategies and technologies to improve the nation's food supply and agriculture as a whole."

Carrillo said that current research at Leyendecker revolves around regional crops such as pecans, onions, chile, and alfalfa, as well as using hoop houses to extend growing seasons, drip irrigation for water conservation, microbial enhancers to encourage plant development, weed control, and marine aquaculture, to name a few projects.

The past four decades have seen dozens of top-notch researchers toiling away at such projects in the fields of Leyendecker, some even garnering national and international acclaim for their work. For instance, NMSU's Paul Bosland grabbed headlines in 2006 when the Guinness Book of World Records confirmed that he had discovered the world's hottest chile pepper, Bhut Jolokia, determined to be several times hotter than the previous record-holder.

Such results are a real feather in the cap for researchers - and for the undergraduate and graduate students who help those projects along while working on degrees in science and agriculture.

"Leyendecker farm has been a big part of my academic achievements," said Jit Baral, who earned his Ph.D. from NMSU in 2003 after studying the genetic diversity of wild hot peppers under Bosland. Baral said he learned to wear the "proper protection equipment" after encountering some particularly hot peppers. The bigger lessons of his time at Leyendecker propelled him to a career as a pepper breeder with the Campbell Soup Company.

"The program exposed me to various plant breeding activities, such as identifying best parent plants, conducting selections, analyzing pepper samples for heat level, and DNA analysis," Baral said.

Learn more about Leyendecker - its history, current projects, and the people behind the place -
at the free field day, "Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future," at Leyendecker this Saturday from 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

In addition to being invited to tour the fields, you'll hear historical talks about the last century of agricultural research and New Mexico's long road to statehood. There will also be displays and demonstrations about research and NMSU's contributions to the state presented by departments and colleges across the university.

The New Mexico Department of Agriculture, a co-host of the event, will also have booths.

This is an official New Mexico Centennial event, so the state's official Centennial hot air balloon will be on hand, and foods - including traditional New Mexico items - will be available for purchase.

For more information, please visit centennial.nmsu.edu or call 575-646-2281.

Leyendecker Centennial Field Day Schedule of Events

9 a.m.: "Becoming the State Different: New Mexico's Stumble to Statehood," Jon Hunner, Head of NMSU History Department.

9:30 a.m.: "A Century of Agricultural Research." Steve Loring, Associate Director of NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station.

10 a.m.-3 p.m.: Booths and demonstrations from departments in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, other NMSU colleges, NMDA and collaborating agencies and organizations. Visitors can also tour walk-through demonstration gardens planted with various local and specialty crops, as well as the pecan research orchard.

Noon: Vendors offer a range of food items, including dishes made from traditional New Mexico ingredients.

12:30 p.m.: "Where Does Your Food Come From?" Billy Dictson, Director of NMSU's Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center.

1-3 p.m.: Field tours research plots guided by NMSU faculty presenting research projects related to pecans, cotton, alfalfa, chiles and other topics.