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NMSU students learn secrets of multi-million dollar organic produce market

There is a lot more to organic produce than sun, rain and fertilizer. New Mexico saw $53 million in revenue from organic products in 2011 and the market is growing. New Mexico State University is giving students in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences an edge in this expanding business through its Student-Centered Field Lab.

Student Kimberly Guzman displays a pair of watermelon seeds at the Student-Centered Field Lab located west of Gerald Thomas Hall. The SCFL is used to teach students the challenges and benefits of planting, harvesting and selling organic produce. (Photo by Angela Simental)

Assistant professor of vegetable physiology Mark Uchanski, left, helps student Kimberly Guzman plant watermelon seeds at the Student-Centered Field Lab located west of Gerald Thomas Hall. (Photo by Angela Simental)

"Organic is one of the larger, growing sectors of agriculture. We want students to be prepared to both conventionally and organically produce vegetables," said Mark Uchanski, assistant professor of horticulture in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

In the lab, students learn how to grow, sell, use and recycle organic produce. The Student-Centered Field Lab began in 2012 with the purpose of giving agriculture students real-life working experience, including the hard, under-the-sun physical labor.

The lab consists of 2 acres of research and demonstration plots plus a 60-by-200-foot field used by students, located within walking distance west of Gerald Thomas Hall. The proximity to campus plays a key role in several aspects of organic production. Three groups of students are involved and each is responsible for different tasks that complete the organic farming cycle.

"Learning to do this organically is an awesome experience - just knowing your food doesn't contain harsh pesticides," said Gerardo Toca, a student majoring in crop consulting. "I can help other farmers learn about getting a profit using sustainable agriculture."

Throughout the first year students produced hundreds of pounds of crops, which was one of the program's initial goals.

"Right now we have rosemary, basil, purple mustard, broccoli, tomato and wild flowers. Earlier this week we harvested 10 pounds of lettuce from just one harvest. You can see how in the course of weeks that would begin to add up," Uchanski said.

Although the program is producing some surplus, the next goal is to generate enough organic produce to sell to community restaurants as well as the main campus food provider Sodexo.

"They serve all of the dorms, and that's a lot of mouths to feed. Instead of 10 pounds of lettuce a week, they probably need 200 pounds. We could probably occupy our entire field for that one order," Uchanski said.

Uchanski explained that producing that much organic produce presents challenges. Students harvest once a week, they must keep the produce fresh and on occasion, rotate crops to maintain healthy soil.

"We don't have the luxury of harvesting and then immediately delivering to the chef. So, we have to wash it and store it in such a way that it is not going to degrade before it gets to the kitchen," he said. "And we are trying to manage it organically, which is a unique scenario."

Students taking the horticulture course are responsible for planting, caring and harvesting organic crops, which are sold to 100 West Café, the student run restaurant. The restaurant serves as a practice and learning lab for students in the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management.

Chef John Hartley or Chef Maurice Zeck prepares the menu for the 100 West Café, which is located in Gerald Thomas Hall. The novelty of knowing where the produce comes from is part of the attraction for some of the guests. The other is knowing students have done everything from the cooking to the serving.

"It adds entertainment value," Hartley said. "People know they are dealing with students, not professionals, but they have pride in their work and they want to make exceptional food and bring exceptional service."

In addition to selling produce to the 100 West Café, students of the Student-Centered Field Lab set up an area in the first floor of Skeen Hall to sell their excess harvest. This gives them experience in setting prices, negotiating and product presentation.

The final part of the process is composting. At the restaurant students divide the waste into compostable and non-compostable. The leftovers are taken to the compost area - all done within a block's proximity of the field lab.

"It is nice to know food is not going to a landfill, but being turned into top soil," Hartley said.

Compost is commonly used in place of synthetic fertilizers to help grow gardens and flowerbeds.

"For the organically minded people, this is a main source of soil nutrient," said soil and composting supervisor William Lindemann, professor of ecology and conservation.

In an effort to make the campus greener, the Environmental Science Student Association manages the compost area. The purpose is for students to learn how to make a compost pile and turn what was going to the dumpster into a usable product.

"Compost is one of the best amendments you can add to soil. It improves nutrient and water holding-capacity and is an energy source for soil biology," said Lindemann, who holds annual composting training sessions for the City of Las Cruces and the Dońa Ana County Cooperative Extension Service Master Gardeners Program.

"A lot of people compost. You'll be surprised," he said. "Even Las Cruces composts its biosolids instead of disposing them in a landfill. They compost them and they give it away to the city residents."

Lindemann said it is important to close the cycle by taking the nutrients not consumed back to the field.

For members of the community interested in learning about organic farming, irrigation, larger scale vegetable production and sales, there are always volunteer positions available.

"This is a great way for someone in the community to experiment if they are considering scaling up to an acre of vegetable production to get serious about selling at the farmer's market or even to a restaurant. It is meant to be a model for our students, but we certainly want to reach out to the community as well," Uchanski said.