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Fruit specialist joins NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas

LOS LUNAS - New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas is entering a new era with the arrival of Ron Walser as the urban small farm specialist.

Urban small farm specialist Ron Walser has joined the staff at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas. With his horticultural background in fruits and berries, he will research varieties of produce that will bring high value crops to the Middle Rio Grande Valley. (NMSU Agricultural Communications photo by Jane Moorman)

Walser is NMSU's fruit specialist and has been at the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde since 2001, researching varieties of fruit and berry plants that will be high value crops for Northern New Mexico.

"With the help of the Alcalde staff I was able to get that program up and running, so this is an opportunity to help develop a new program," Walser said of the position in Los Lunas that became available with Mike English's retirement.

His mission at Los Lunas is to extend and expand the research he did at Alcalde to the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

"The Los Lunas center has focused mainly on field crop research, which will continue under the direction of Tom Place, farm superintendent, but with the increased urban development in the valley, the rural setting is changing," Walser said. "There is now a demand by small farmers and backyard gardeners for high value crops that can be produced and utilized at home or sold locally. NMSU decided we needed to expand the research here to include such crops, including different varieties of fruit and berry plants."

An acre of high value crop could earn $10,000 or more for the farmer. Walser said an example is a farmer in Espanola who has earned up to $30,000 on a third of an acre of strawberries by selling his produce at farmer markets.

Determining which fruit and berry varieties will prosper in the Middle Rio Grande Valley is Walser's goal.

"I tell growers that we do our research here and make the mistakes so they don't have to. We want them to come see what works and then apply the techniques on their farm," he said.

Research will be conducted on traditional fruits, such as apple, peach, cherry, apricot, plum, fig, quince, paw paw, table grapes, hardy kiwi and persimmon, and berries, such as blackberry, raspberry, elderberry, currant, gooseberry, blueberry and strawberry.

Walser also plans to study four varieties of berries that are new to North American gardeners - sea berry, honeyberry, Cornelian cherry and schisandra.

Tests of various varieties of these four berries will be done to see if they are potential high value crops for the Middle Rio Grande Valley climate.

"Sea berry has an orange berry that makes a nice ornamental shrub, which also produces a fruit that is high in antioxidants," Walser said.

While sea berry is new to North America, it is prized throughout Europe and Asia for its nutritious fruit, medicinal value and attractive growth habit and tolerance to even the most inhospitable growing situations.

"Honeyberry comes from Russia and Japan," Walser said of the berry that is also very high in antioxidants. "It is a small shrub that is a member of the honeysuckle family. It produces an oblong shaped blue berry that tastes like a blueberry."

Cornelian cherry is a unique species of dogwood that is both a fine ornamental and a producer of delicious and nutritious fruit that is larger than, but tastes somewhat like, a sweet pie cherry. The available varieties were developed in the Ukraine.

Schisandra, or more commonly known as magnolia vine, is a climbing vine that comes from China and Russia. "The red fruit clusters like grapes. It is high in vitamins and antioxidants and can be made into a medicinal tea," Walser said.

In addition to the fruit and berry research, Walser said the science center will conduct a comparison study of vegetables planted on a drip irrigated plot and the same size of plot that will be flood irrigated.

Once the farm's plants are producing, Walser said the cash value of the crops will be determined by obtaining prices of the produce at farmer markets.

"We want to determine what types of produce will be the highest value for the utilized growing area," he said.

Walser brings more than 35 years of experience to his new assignment, including lengthy stints with Extension in other states and consultancy work in industry.

He received a bachelor's degree in horticulture in 1968 from Brigham Young University and a doctorate in crop physiology in 1976 from Utah State. From 1976 to 1980, he worked with Extension at three universities: Kentucky State University, Texas Tech University and Utah State. He taught at Brigham Young from 1980 to 1993.

Prior to joining NMSU's research staff, Walser worked in the private sector, including five years as a horticultural field agent with two fruit and vegetable growing and processing cooperatives in Chihuahua, Mexico. He was associate Extension agent in Graham County, Ariz., from 1998-1999 where he developed a very successful Master Gardener program.

In 1999 and 2000 he worked as a field representative and field manager for Washington-based Windflow Fertilizer Inc. and for Radar Farms Inc, respectively.

Walser said he wants to increase the visibility of the science center in the community. He is working with the Master Gardener program volunteers who will help at the Los Lunas center.

"We want people to come and get ideas and hopefully people will grow more local food," he said. "There is a tremendous population in this area that can benefit from our research."