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NMSU Greenhouse Program Helps Northern New Mexico Growers Earn More

COSTILLA - Wanda and David Cordova own a small farm in the tiny Colorado town of Garcia, a stone's throw from the New Mexico border. Miles from the nearest city, they scrape a living off the wheat and alfalfa that David grows on their 40-acre plot, plus a little extra he earns by repairing tires for his neighbors and occasionally cutting their hair.


Combined with wages their son earns at a nearby mine, the family's total household income was, until recently, about $20,000 annually.

But since 1998, Wanda has managed to increase family income by about $5,000 per year by growing fresh greens and flowers in a community greenhouse up the road that she helped construct with her neighbors as part of a program run by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.

"There's really nothing up here, so if you want to earn a living you have to create your own jobs," Wanda said. "This greenhouse project has really helped a lot."

The program, begun in 1996 by NMSU's Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project (RAIPAP), teaches growers in northern New Mexico how to build and operate cold frames and greenhouses.

"Greenhouses provide an excellent alternative for people who don't have a lot of land to produce agricultural products," said Del Jimenez, agriculture specialist with RAIPAP. "The project has allowed the Cordovas and many other rural families to develop a second income for their households."

The program has also helped established growers increase their production because greenhouse cultivation extends the growing season. Growers can plant greenhouse crops earlier in the spring when weather is still cold, allowing them to get their products to market sooner at higher prices. They can keep producing into late fall to increase their yields, Jimenez said.

"Conventional growers in northern New Mexico are typically limited to a five-month season from May to September, but greenhouses can extend the season to about nine months, from March to November," he said.

Relatively low construction costs make greenhouses a viable alternative for small-scale growers. A greenhouse can cost $6,000 to $12,000, depending on size, quality of construction materials and the operating systems a grower installs, Jimenez said. Greenhouses need heaters, coolers, and irrigation and fertilization systems.

In contrast, simple cold frames cost between $200 and $600 to build. A cold frame is much smaller and lacks temperature controls and other operating systems. Construction is limited to a basic frame with plastic covering.

An $8,000 W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant has allowed RAIPAP and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) to jointly establish demonstration cold frames in eight northern communities, including Indian reservations such as Taos and Laguna pueblos. RAIPAP uses them for periodic workshops on construction and use, and local growers are welcome to plant vegetables and ornamentals in them.

RAIPAP also offers large workshops for farmers throughout the northern counties. About 40 growers attended a free, all-day workshop on Nov. 28 at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Alcalde, where participants learned through direct experience, building a 15-by-40-foot cold frame during the event.

Jimenez said the program has had a slow but steady multiplier effect since it began in 1996. About 100 families have constructed individual cold frames and greenhouses throughout the north, many a direct result of RAIPAP workshops.

"It's real grassroots technology transfer," Jimenez said. "Given the simplicity and benefits of constructing these structures, more and more families are setting them up."

RAIPAP also helped local families build two large community greenhouses, one in La Cienega and the other in the northern border town of Costilla, where Wanda Cordova got her business started. RAIPAP and NMDA helped Wanda and seven other women get an $8,000 Rural Development Response Council grant to build the greenhouse in 1996.

The women worked collectively the first year, earning about $1,000 for flowers, vegetables and plant starts they sold at farmers markets and elsewhere. Although the women still grow food for personal consumption, they stopped working collectively, so Wanda started planting her own greens and flowers in the greenhouse.

She's done so well that this year she and her husband used credit cards and some of their profits to build a new greenhouse on their own property for about $6,000. Next year, with the new structure, she expects her annual income to grow to $6,500. She hopes to eventually double production and sales to $10,000.

"I've learned this whole thing from scratch by participating in the community greenhouse and by attending all the workshops," Wanda said. "It's really paid off."