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NMSU horticulture student gains experience at college research farm, historical estate

New Mexico State University senior Aiessa Wages' journey to a career in horticulture began with her wanting to help on her grandparents' farm. After a summer working at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Farmington as well as an internship at a prestigious estate in northern California, she is looking at a career far beyond the state borders.

Two people, a girl and guy, cutting grape vines.
Aiessa Wages and Jason Thomas trim grape vines at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Farmington. Wages is completing her bachelor's degree in horticulture at NMSU this year. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

Wages' dream is to take the knowledge she has gained while obtaining her degree from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and work overseas helping refugee camps in Thailand and Burma develop small-scale gardens so the people will have a food source.

"I want to help them raise gardens so they can sustain themselves, instead of having to depend on the United Nations or other countries to bring in food," Wages said. "It will help them be healthier in an environment that has a lot of sickness."

The Aztec, N.M., native loves to discover what other countries and regions grow.

"I love going overseas and seeing the different agriculture that is there," she said. "I like the aspect of not just learning what is in my little bubble of the world, but learning what's outside of it."

Wages discovered her love of horticulture through San Juan College's horticultural program taught by Kevin Lombard, NMSU assistant professor of horticulture; Dan Smeal, NMSU professor stationed at the Farmington science center; Don Hyder, SJC associate professor of biology; and Linda Reeves, SJC instructor.

"I attended SJC to start my college education because I had to help my grandparents on their farm," said Wages, who grew up on her family's 27-acre farm. "I originally was going to major in psychology, but then changed to horticulture because it's something I've always done and I love it."

After completing her associate degree at San Juan College in Farmington, Wages transferred to NMSU's Las Cruces campus to complete her bachelor's degree.

At Lombard's urging, Wages applied for an internship at Filoli Estates in Woodside, Calif. She was among four students selected for the 10-week experience during the summer of 2011.

"Filoli is a historical, 654-acre country place built in 1917 in the San Francisco Bay Area by William Bowers Bourn, a prominent San Franciscan whose chief source of wealth was the Empire Mike, a hard-rock gold mine in Grass Valley," said Lombard, who was estate gardener there for three years. "The grounds include a 125-acre estate that includes the house, outbuildings and 16-acre formal garden."

Wages and Jason Thomas, an employee at the Farmington Science Center, worked throughout the formal garden serving two weeks in each area, including the greenhouse area, under the direct supervision of a lead horticulturalist. They were taught techniques of planting, watering, hedging, fertilizing, mowing, pruning, etc. At the end of the program they were tested on subjects they were taught, which also included knowing garden and greenhouse plants, weeds and native plants.

"While I'm not really into the aspect of maintaining something that someone else created, I did learn a lot," Wages said. "It was interesting learning about the history of the different fruits that were raised there and how the different trees need to be pruned differently."

"We did landscape horticulture there which is more about maintaining what has already been established," Thomas said. "Here at the Farmington science center we do research farming, which I enjoy more."

After completing her junior year in Las Cruces, Wages was hired at the Agricultural Science Center at Farmington as a summer laborer where she joined Thomas. She worked in the fields and helped to gather data on various research projects being conducted at the farm.

"I was raised on a farm all my life so it was a natural part of me growing up."

Working at the Farmington research farm and at Filoli Estates has given Wages the opportunity to expand her classroom education into hands-on experiences that will help her as she pursues her career in agriculture.