Writer: D'Lyn Ford
ALCALDE-After five years of careful maintenance, experimental apple orchard research at New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde in finally bearing fruit.
NMSU researchers planted the orchard in spring 1996 to test early maturing apple varieties that could help farmers get produce to market sooner and extend the New Mexico apple season. The project also is comparing two different apple growing methods under local conditions.
This is the first year the trees have produced enough fruit to complete yield data, said Steve Guldan, center superintendent.
"We're not into a good age for the trees," Guldan said. "This is our first harvest, but we expect from now on to have regular yields to record and measure data."
The orchard includes eight varieties of early ripening apples: Imperial Gala, Red Fuji, Redfree and Redchief (red delicious), Ginger Gold and Golden Supreme (golden delicious), and Akane and Lucky Jon (Jonathan).
"We are testing varieties that are new for this area," Guldan said. "We hope the experiment will provide local growers with more options and help them get produce to market earlier and at a better price."
Rootstock and growing systems chosen for the experiment will allow researchers to test intensive farming methods that could increase yields.
All the apple varieties are planted on a dwarf rootstock that grows 11 to 14 feet tall- much shorter than typical rootstocks in New Mexico that reach 18 to 25 feet. Dwarf rootstock allows the orchard to have many more trees, said Charles Martin, an agriculture specialist working on the project.
"Until recently, the typical planting density in New Mexico was low, on the order of about 200 tree per acre," Martin said. "We have 400 per acre."
Half of the trees in the orchard are free-standing and half are on a trellis system. Trellis wires are strung lengthwise between the trees, and limbs are gradually twisted onto the strands so they spread out horizontally to produce more apples. The trellis system is a new method for commercial growing that helps support the branches of dwarf rootstock and allows more light to reach the lower levels.
Initial results on the two systems and on the apple varieties will be complied during the winter and published in the spring, Martin said. But some preliminary findings are already evident.
"The Gala performed probably the best of all the apples this year, followed by Redfree," Martin said. "As for the growing systems, we're finding that the trellis does provide some protection against high winds because fewer apples are falling off the trees. Given that high winds in the afternoon are frequent here, we think this might be an advantage."
As yield data is recorded and analyzed, the center expects the research results to influence local production trends and techniques.
"Commercial growers are following this research very carefully," said Bonnie Gomez, former secretary treasurer of the New Mexico Apple Commission. "If high-density growing techniques are feasible and if the newer apple varieties do well locally, then growers will likely move in that direction."
In the meantime, the experimental orchard serves as a hands-on demonstration for apple growers who want to learn about new farming methods.
"Even though the orchard is set up as a formal scientific experiment, we're finding that a greater benefit is being derived from its demonstration capabilities," Martin said. "Quite a few farmers have visited us to learn firsthand about state-of-the-art growing methods and techniques."
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