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New Mexico State University

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NMSU Tests Organic Fruit Farming in Northern New Mexico

ALCALDE -- The nation's organic wave may soon sweep through northern New Mexico fruit farms, thanks to a new experimental plot to test organic techniques in fruit growing at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Alcalde.

The project will examine organic methods on dozens of varieties of fruit already grown in the region, such as apples and peaches, while introducing new crops like kiwifruit.

"The organic farming community is expanding rapidly, about 20 percent per year nationwide, and maybe even faster in New Mexico," said Ron Walser, a fruit specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service who is supervising the project. "There's a definite need to assist that part of the farming community because science-based information about organic techniques is hard for growers to obtain."

Organic methods may help struggling fruit farmers become more profitable, Walser said.

"There's an excellent market for organic products, and that can help increase income for small farms," he said. "Conventional growers can also benefit if they adopt some organic techniques by cutting down on chemical use or by making production more sustainable as far as soil fertility is concerned."

The project, to begin this fall, makes NMSU one of only six land-grant universities nationwide to conduct certified organic research at a science center.

"Weâll get certification from the New Mexico Organic Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture," Walser said. "That means any fertilizers or insecticides we apply will come from natural rather than manufactured sources. We'll be looking at many new organic products and systems to control weeds and pests."

Researchers will plant Gala apple trees and several varieties of late-blooming, cold-hardy peach and apricot trees. They will also test different varieties of plums, sweet and tart cherries, strawberries, raspberries, thornless blackberries, kiwifruit, white and red wine grapes and seedless table grapes.

Fruit will be planted on a 5-acre plot unused by the center for five years, allowing the project to meet organic certification requirements that stipulate a three-year waiting period after chemicals are applied to the soil, Walser said.

Researchers are preparing a compost mixture using horse manure, alfalfa and grass to provide fertilizer and mulch to control weeds. Plastic mulch will be used on some crops, including strawberries.

The center will install an extensive under-tree sprinkler system for most of the crops, representing a new watering technique for northern fruit farms where flood irrigation is the norm, Walser said. Sprinklers can help growers protect against the chronic problem of late spring frosts because the water gives off heat as it freezes.

Researchers will also plant cover crops between tree rows, a technique that offers a number of benefits for fruit farms. Cover crops capture more water from sprinklers, providing greater frost protection, Walser said. Cover crops can also increase organic matter and nitrogen in the soil and keep the plot from getting muddy during summer rainstorms while avoiding compaction when the ground dries.

Researchers planted peas as a temporary cover crop for nitrogen fixation and organic matter to help prepare the plot for planting, Walser said. The first two varieties of strawberries will be planted this fall, for harvest next spring. Most of the other crops will be planted in spring 2002, with the first major harvest planned for spring 2004.

"We will continually monitor organic matter in the soil and examine the overall health of the soil," Walser said. "We'll also study crop yield, plant growth, pest control and fruit quality."

Finally, Walser will test value-added products, such as raisins from cherries and grapes; dried fruit from peaches, apricots and plums; and juices, wines, jams and jellies from all the crops.

"There's a lot we'll be looking at," Walser said. "I think the trials will have a very valuable impact on fruit farming in the north."