Writer: Kevin Robinson-Avila
JEMEZ - In a few years, Jemez Pueblo leaders expect to harvest thousands of dollars worth of fresh fruit from an orchard they planted this spring, and they expect pueblo youth to run the operation.
The orchard and a newly created 4-H program connected to it are part of a broad tribal plan to revive agricultural production at the pueblo.
"The Jemez people farmed extensively for hundreds of years throughout this area, and their plots covered the entire landscape right up to Jemez Springs," said Steve Blodgett, head of the pueblo's Resource Protection Department. "In recent generations, farming has declined immensely, but we're working to revive it. We want to promote sustainable economic development projects that reinforce traditional values and cultural heritage, and the orchard is a key part of that."
New Mexico State University is assisting the pueblo with planting the orchard and in training youth to care for it through a new 4-H program at tribal schools, said Ron Walser, a fruit specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.
"There's a lot of interest on the pueblo to start growing fruit crops," Walser said. "The orchard is a great way to educate people about fruit farming while providing a place for youth to get involved."
According to old Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) maps, pueblo members once farmed up to 2,400 acres of land, producing corn, chile, beans, squash and many kinds of fruit, Blodgett said. But total farm area dropped to just 400 acres in recent years.
To reverse that trend, the tribal government launched a cost-share program last year that pays interested families 50 percent of costs to expand farms or plant new plots.
"The program is a real success," Blodgett said. "Farm area increased to 600 acres last year, and we expect it to increase a lot more this year. It's encouraged us to look for more ways to promote agriculture, such as planting the orchard."
Walser is supervising design of the new 2.5-acre orchard. He helped pueblo leaders choose cold-hardy, New Mexico-adapted fruit varieties that he tested at NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde. In April, he helped plant nearly 400 apple, peach, cherry, apricot, plum and pear trees, as well as scores of table grape vines, blackberry plants and raspberries.
The orchard will include state-of-the-art irrigation and growing techniques that Walser has researched at Alcalde, such as under-tree microsprinklers to save water and protect trees against late spring frost, drip irrigation for small fruits, pruning methods and trellis systems to increase yields, and organic weed and pest controls.
The McCune Foundation contributed $15,000 of the $30,000 to establish the orchard, which will begin producing commercial yields by 2008. Within 10 years, the orchard could generate up to $30,000 a year, Walser said.
The Resource Protection Department will care for the orchard until 4-H members are ready to take over, said Carrie Gachupin, the department's outreach coordinator. Gachupin is working with the Sandoval County Extension office to establish a 4-H program at pueblo schools.
"Most of the pueblo kids are from families who have small vegetable plots, and a lot of them want to learn more about growing," Gachupin said. "The orchard goes hand in hand with 4-H, because it's a vehicle for the kids to learn about agriculture while giving something back to their community. By working in the orchard, maybe they'll learn to manage their own farms in the future and make a living off the land."
Extension is working to re-establish 4-H at Jemez and other pueblos. The program fell dormant on reservations in the early 1980s after BIA contracts with Extension expired. About 50,000 New Mexico youngsters participate statewide in 4-H, which provides fun, educational activities that help youth develop life skills and build an appreciation for agriculture and natural resources.
"Eventually, we want the Jemez 4-H clubs to take over full management of the orchard, including pruning, irrigation, pest control, harvesting and marketing the fruit," Gachupin said.
The 4-H clubs will decide how to market the fruit, Blodgett said. "There's a lot of tourist traffic through the pueblo on Highway 4, so they could set up roadside stands," he said. "They could produce value-added products such as dry and packaged fruits. It's a good way to get business and marketing experience."
Meanwhile, the tribal government will distribute more fruit trees to pueblo families through the cost-share program. And Walser plans to offer free workshops at the orchard on organic fruit growing for pueblo farmers.
"Jemez used to be well known as an agricultural pueblo with heirloom varieties of chile, corn and apples," Blodgett said. "We want to bring that reputation back."
The pueblo governors will hold a dedication ceremony at the orchard on June 15. For more information, call Blodgett at (505) 834-7696 ext. 106.
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