Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES--New Mexico may be the Land of Enchantment, but it's also the land of diverse environments. Differing climates and soil types challenge the state's farmers, making it necessary to test new crop varieties in several locations across the state.
Researchers with New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas serve both rural and urban clients. Whether is the latest pest-resistant corn variety or a water-wise landscaping plant, scientists at the center monitor test plots and make recommendations to diverse audiences.
"The reason that we have several science centers around the state is that each agricultural community is quite different," said Mike English, center superintendent. "In ares like Clovis, researchers tend to focus on 'macro' agriculture--farming commodity crops on a large scale. Here in Los Lunas, our producers have similar farms. They are looking to fill niche markets."
Wine grapes, pumpkins, blue corn and high-quality alfalfa for horses are just a few of the niche markets available to farmers in Valencia County. "Alfalfa is the number one cash crop in New Mexico," English said. "We have test plots at the science center to look at quality, yield and insect damage on a number of varieties."
In another area of the 200-acre farm, researchers are testing genetically altered corn, hoping to boost farmers' yields. "For example, herbicide-resistant varieties can be sprayed for weeds without damaging the corn crop," said Darrell Baker, agronomist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.
Another corn variety has been altered to include a microbe that was first used to treat sewage lagoons. "Initial research showed tremendous growth of anything planted near one of these lagoons," Baker said. "We're hoping the microbe will give us extra yield by increasing the release of soil nutrients to the plants."
The science center, located along the Rio Grande, also is home to unique water studies. "We're testing solar pumps, drip irrigation systems, plastic mulches and water-holding gels to help maximize water use," English said.
For urban water users, a coordinated effort with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service-Plant Materials Center (PMC) provides recommendations for landscape plants that require less water. "Urban clients use a lot of water to irrigate backyards and golf courses," English said. "The more we can reduce how much we use, the more water will be available for the whole community, including urban and rural settings."
Next year, PMC at Los Lunas will release seeds from a native grass--cane bluestem. Native to the Southwest, cane bluestem is showing promise in home landscapes, native grass pastures and conservation areas.
"We are studying cane bluestem because we are interested in finding native plants to take the place of invasive, introduces plants," said Ramona Garner, PMC agronomist. "We believe this grass can take the place of yellow bluestem, which is an invasive species previously planted along highways."
The cane bluestem has fluffy seed heads, similar to pampas grass. "We use a flail-vac to harvest the seeds," Garner said. "It's a large, rotating brush that sweeps over the top of the grass, removing only the mature seeds."
One Albuquerque grower already has shown interest in selling the bluestem as an ornamental grass. Garner plans further livestock grazing tests before the seed is released.
The diverse research at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas fills many of the area's urban and agricultural needs. "We're bringing science to the community to enhance people's lives," English said.
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