Writer: Norman Martin
LAS CRUCES - The father of the U.S. Mexican food industry has been enshrined in the national Hall of Fame for the American Society for Horticultural Science. Fabian Garcia, a pioneering New Mexico State University chile breeder, was inducted into the hall this summer, some five decades after his death.
"This award is the cherry on top of an illustrious career," said Paul Bosland, an internationally recognized chile breeder with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station and director of the university's Chile Pepper Institute. "The inductees in this group are elite professionals who've been at the top of their profession."
Garcia was chosen by a panel of eight industry leaders, educators and scholars from across the nation. The 3,000-member society, founded in 1903, is the nation's largest scientific organization dedicated to advancing horticultural research and education.
During more than 50 years at NMSU, Garcia carried out a series of revolutionary horticultural experiments. In 1899, he began research to develop more standardized chile varieties. Early in the 1900s, he released New Mexico 9, the first variety with a dependable pod size and heat level.
The new pod variety opened commercial markets for New Mexico chile peppers and established the state's chile pepper food industry, Bosland said.
"For that work he's known as the 'father of the U.S. Mexican food industry,'" Bosland said. "All New Mexican-type chile peppers grown today, including the Anaheim, owe their genetic base to Fabian Garcia's New Mexico No. 9 variety."
Now, New Mexico's chile industry boasts varieties aplenty - greens, reds, jalapeņos, cayennes and paprikas. As a niche cash crop, New Mexico's chile industry contributes about $400 million annually to the local economy, including $300 million worth of peppers and processed goods and about $100 million that growers pump into local businesses for supplies and inputs, said Rhonda Skaggs, an agricultural economics professor at NMSU.
Born in Mexico in 1871, Garcia came to the United States in 1873 as a orphan with his grandmother. He became a U.S. citizen in 1889.
Garcia attended what was then known as the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now New Mexico State University. He was a member of the university's first graduating class in 1894, and later became the director of the land-grant school's Agricultural Experiment Station.
"Fabian Garcia was the first Hispanic in the nation to lead a land-grant agricultural research station," said LeRoy Daugherty, associate director of NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. "He filled the position with enthusiasm and extraordinary productivity both as a researcher and an administrator. His monumental achievements continue to inspire researchers and students at NMSU today."
Another of Garcia's research accomplishments was his raised-bed method of growing peppers to reduce chile wilt, a root rot caused by a water mold, he said. Diseased plants wilt and die, leaving brown stalks and leaves, and small, poor quality fruit.
Garcia's horticultural interests were deep and wide.
The famed chile expert was instrumental in establishing New Mexico's massive pecan industry. In the early 1900s he planted many of the Mesilla Valley's first pecan trees. Garcia's four acres of pecans became the state's largest pecan planting. Today, New Mexico has more than 30,000 acres of pecans.
Then there's Garcia's groundbreaking work on commercial onion production. After obtaining a high-yielding onion variety from Spain, he developed a new strain for New Mexico called Grano.
The variety was later sent to the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in Crystal City, Texas, where it aided in creation of today's $50 million Texas sweet onion industry, Daugherty said.
Garcia's research ranged across a huge number of New Mexico crops, including pears, peaches, grapes and plums, as well as onions, spinach, melons and cauliflower.
Several of Garcia's manuscripts, Agricultural Experiment Station bulletins, press bulletins and speeches were written and published in both English and Spanish, making him among the first American horticulturists to provide bilingual literature, Daugherty said.
The "Old Director," as Garcia was called in the twilight of his career, retired in 1945 after falling ill. He died at 77 some three years later at Las Cruces' McBride Hospital. Garcia left his entire estate to the university, in part providing for a dormitory and scholarships for Hispanic youth.
Before his death, Garcia told a friend, "I want to help poor boys, for I know of their hardships."
NMSU honored his legacy by naming the 45-acre Fabian Garcia Research Center after him, in addition to a faculty senate meeting hall, a building housing its center for international programs and a dormitory, Garcia Hall. Today, Garcia Hall remains NMSU's largest residence hall.
Garcia's legacy continues through NMSU's Fabian Garcia Memorial Scholarship and Fabian Garcia Multicultural Scholars Program.
Garcia's hall of fame plaque at the American Society for Horticultural Science's Alexandria, Va., headquarters reads simply: "Dr. Fabian Garcia, a man of humble origins, but a gentleman of extraordinary achievements."
© 2013 New Mexico State University Board of Regents
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