Writer: D'Lyn Ford
ALCALDE - Don Bustos, a certified organic grower in the Espaņola Valley, began cultivating rosemary, peppermint and lemon balm in 1998 after attending lectures on the commercial viability of locally grown herbs at New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agricultural Science Center at Alcalde.
"I attended the workshops on herb studies and it got me really interested because I see good commercial potential if we can grow them here," said Bustos, who produced about $92,000 of vegetables and other crops in 1999.
He is now following the center's latest research on yerba mansa to see if it can be successfully cultivated in his soil. "I will certainly give it a try if they find it's feasible," he said. The yerba mansa research, which began in spring 1998 and will continue through fall 2002, is the third NMSU study of medicinal herbs since 1995.
In two studies that ended in fall 1996, researchers at Alcalde collaborated with other NMSU scientists based in Las Cruces to investigate the commercial viability of medicinal herb cultivation in New Mexico.
"Medicinal herbs can be an excellent alternative for small farmers because they have the potential for high returns on small acreages," said Steve Guldan, superintendent at the Acalde center. "That's why we began this research."
One study compared yields from different planting densities of Echinacea purpurea, yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica) and valerian. The other tested direct seeding and transplanting with five herbs: catnip, nettle, calendula, lemon balm and scarlet globemallow. Both studies were conducted simultaneously in Las Cruces and Alcalde.
In the spacing study, researchers found that in both the north and south yields increased with higher-density planting.
"We compared 12-, 18- and 24-inch plant spacings and found the best yields were at the twelve inch spacings," said Marisa Wall, and NMSU horticulturist who supervised the Las Cruces growing site. "We may even be able to go into a higher density, which is good for small farmers."
The other study found that, in general, herbs grow better when transplanted.
For both studies, NMSU agricultural economist Connie Falk conducted market research, projecting potential returns for a 10-acre herb farm. Falk found that several plants could generate significant returns, with echinacea the most promising at $16,093 per acre in Las Cruces and $14,612 per acre in Alcalde.
Because Falk based profit projections on prices at the time and global herb supplies have grown, farmers must research current market conditions before planting. "We know it grows well here and we can get good yields, but it doesn't mean it's an economic gold mine," Falk said.
The success of the earlier studies encouraged researchers at Alcalde to continue work on yerba mansa, which is traditionally harvested from wild stands in northern New Mexico. The center is comparing yields on heavy clay soil typical of the places it grows naturally with those on sandy soils more typical of local farms.
"Surprisingly, we've so far found better yields in the sandy soil than in heavy clay soil," said Charles Martin, an agriculture specialist at Alcalde. "That's good because it means that as long as a farmer can provide adequate water, the plant will grow in almost any soil."
More research on water requirements and direct seeding is needed. But Don Bustos said the initial results are already attracting interest. "Quite a few growers up here are looking at niche marketing with herbs, and we'll all be very interested in the yerba mansa study results."
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