Writer: D'Lyn Ford
CLOVIS -- It's crunch time for peanut research as New Mexico State University scientists here grind out a special breeding program aimed at producing an even better niche market nut for the state's producers.
For more than a decade NMSU researchers have been conducting variety trials in Portales and Clovis. Three years ago they initiated a peanut breeding program for the region. Last week, NMSU showed off some early results at a Peanut Field Day, a two-farm tour of experimental plots and variety trials.
While peanuts are, well, peanuts in the overall picture of New Mexico agriculture, only about 3 percent of total crop production, they're critical to many eastern New Mexico producers. "Truthfully, they (peanuts) have helped keep the irrigated farmer in business through the years," said Floyd McAlister, Roosevelt County agent with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "They've been a crop that has consistently made money for the growers."
According to the New Mexico Agricultural Statistics Service in Las Cruces, the state's farmers produced some 55 million pounds of peanuts on 26,000 acres in 2000. The crop, vastly dominated by a prized peanut variety known as Valencia, was valued at $16.1 million. Eastern New Mexico grows more than two-thirds of the United Statesâ annual supply of the specialty nuts, which are sometimes called ballpark nuts or Tennessee Reds because of the red skins on the kernels.
A rare combination of environmental and climatic conditions makes a narrow swath of counties in this part of New Mexico nearly perfect for growing Valencias. One county alone, Roosevelt, has 12,500 acres in the ground.
Naveen Puppala, a peanut specialist with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station, is breeding new and improved Valencia varieties to boost yields and reduce disease problems. Puppala, who is based at the Agricultural Science Center in Clovis, has spent the last three growing seasons rolling out a new program that takes promising breeding lines from around the globe and crosses them with New Mexico-grown varieties.
"The ultimate goal is to develop a better peanut variety specifically suited for the New Mexico producer that is resistant to black hull, a disease that can significantly reduce yields," Puppala said. Other research goals include cutting the current growing season by 10 days and developing more cold-tolerant varieties.
NMSU is also cooperating in a U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) program to build developing nations' agricultural output. In this case, the university is assisting development of peanut breeding programs in Bulgaria. As with New Mexico, the former eastern bloc neighbor only grows the Valencia variety and has similar growing season limitations. As part of the USAID program, Puppala hopes to add some of Bulgariaâs compact growing traits to a New Mexico peanut line. Meantime, researchers in Bulgaria are studying several of the state's varieties for improved yields.
NMSU researchers are working with the National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson, Ga., on evaluation of water-saving irrigation systems for peanuts. "Subsurface drip irrigation is showing good promise in New Mexico," said Ronald Sorensen, a U.S. Department of Agriculture research agronomist. "It's not going to be a cure-all, but it will fill a niche for someone who can't afford a big center-pivot irrigation system or has irregularly shaped areas."
Sorensen is also examining use of a common bacteria, known as Rhizobium, to reduce fertilizer rate levels on New Mexico's peanut crop. The bacteria, he said, works symbiotically with the plant to create its own nitrogen. The nitrogen fixed by the Rhizobium gives the peanut plant a boost during the growing season, then after harvest the beneficial nitrogen remains in the soil for the next growing cycle. The bacterial inoculant, as it's called, can be applied to the seed with or without water. As little as 14 ounces of Rhizobium can treat 200 pounds of peanut seed.
"If we can make that plant more efficient, then hopefully it will increase the grade," Sorensen said. "If you increase the grade, then you increase the revenue."
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