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NMSU and NMDA work together to boost organic farming

When the organic program began in 1991, New Mexico certified $5,000 worth of organic produce. By 2011 the state certified $61 million in organic crops.


Man shows book.
Mark Uchanski, assistant professor of horticulture in the NMSU Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, received a grant to help organic farmers, growers and producers manage soil, pests and weed problems. This will help some achieve USDA organic certification and others maintain their organic seal. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)

"Organic farming is increasing every year. It is the fastest growing sector in agriculture in the U.S.," said Joanie Quinn, organic commodity advisor of the NMDA Organic Program. "Eleven percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. are certified organic."

As the demand for certified organic product grows, producers are having a hard time keeping up. With a unique climate, New Mexico farmers producing organic goods face challenges from clearing soil to become certified, managing pests and weeds without harsh chemicals, administering timely production to dealing with the lack of irrigation. New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture are teaming up to answer farmers' questions.

"Organic farmers have a lot of questions and are bound by their ecosystem," Quinn said, "There are researchers in various research stations and on Las Cruces campus, who are doing research, specifically for organic practices. And we do our part helping them through the process of getting certified."

Both NMSU and the state's department of agriculture recognized the growing organic movement in the early '90s and created a program that helps organic producers.

"It is one of the first years we have more organic acres than conventional acres, but we tell people how much they can have versus telling them 'we'll get you what you want,'" said Jimmie Shearer, President and CEO of Sunland Inc, producer of the Valencia peanuts. "From the farmer's standpoint it takes a lot more timely management to do it organically."

The biggest challenge Shearer faces is growing organic peanuts without having organic herbicide.

"Another problem is having the land certified, so if you want to convert conventional to organic is a three-year process, but we don't have an interim product that pays more than the conventional process."

Shearer, who has worked closely with several of the NMSU science research station for more than 15 years, added that in organic farming timing is critical.

"In conventional farming you spray it tomorrow or the next day and in organic everything is timed," Shearer said.

Mark Uchanski, assistant professor of horticulture in the NMSU Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, said that conventional growers, for example, will grow alfalfa in rotation to fix nitrogen levels and build soil, but "at the end it is very easy to kill with herbacides, but it is not easy to kill in an organic system where you don't have the option of using herbicide."

Uchanski has been researching organic production and received a planning grant, which allowed him to talk to growers, producers and processors and find out what problems they face in growing organic peanuts. With this funding, he will establish experiments that help alleviate some issues.

"Agriculture is a very important part of the state's economy, Uchanski said. "We have been organic farming for a long time, but we don't have applied the science up until recently. Understanding the science of organic farming is very important to help boost that part of the state's economy."

Uchanski has also worked with chili growers in New Mexico and said he is looking for alternatives that will help both organic and conventional farmers.

"For example, the chili growers in our state use chemical fumigants that are injected into the soil to kill pathogens. However, it is not always that effective," Uchanski said. "So we have been exploring a biofumigant, which is a mustard cover crop. We allow it to grow, mow it down and incorporate it into the soil."

Uchanksi found that the natural chemicals released by the mustard crop help eliminate pathogens, increase soil organic matter and is cheaper than buying chemical fumigants.

Having the USDA organic seal on products is a long process that requires thorough maintenance before and after certification. As demand grows, organic farmers need the right information in order to produce the volume of crops consumers want while strictly adhering to the U.S. Department of Agriculture certified organic statutes.

"NMSU can serve organic farmers in the state by doing research that is specific to irrigated desert systems," Uchanski said. "Organic growers need information, and working with NMDA, we can provide that information by testing in the field to give them solutions."