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NMSU alumni use grant to expand sustainable farming techniques

Along a high gravel road radiating white under the sunlight, near the Rio Grande, whose waters splash against the walls of a bridge over it, and nestled within acres of shady pecan trees is Taylor Hood Farms.


Man and woman talk in greenhouse
New Mexico State University alumnus Patrick DeSimio-Sophiliazo, left, chats with Niki Harings, post-doctoral researcher in Fishery and Wildlife Sciences at NMSU. They are part of MESA Project, designed to share knowledge and build partnerships that can help the Doña Ana County farming community address its environmental challenges. (NMSU photo by Andres Leighton)
Two men and two women standing in a greenhouse
New Mexico State University alumna Lea WiseSurguy-Sophiliazo, left, Patrick DeSimio-Sophiliazo, center right, are joined by NMSU chef and assistant professor Pete Mitchell, center left, and Niki Harings, post-doctoral researcher in Fishery and Wildlife Sciences at NMSU, in a greenhouse at Taylor Hood Farms. They are all part of MESA Project, designed to share knowledge and build partnerships that can help the Doña Ana County farming community address its environmental challenges. (NMSU photo by Andres Leighton)

Here New Mexico State University alumni Lea WiseSurguy-Sophiliazo and her husband, Patrick DeSimio-Sophiliazo, are preparing for the first of a series of community meals in mid July.

“We want to bring together anyone who has a role in the agricultural sector—farmers, agricultural scientists, policymakers, chefs, distributors—to share knowledge and build partnerships,” DeSimio said.

The rows of artichokes, which grow in fat bundles with regal purple flowers on top, squash, zucchini, and the hoop houses draped in opaque canvas containing tomato plants, most green, some rare reds, are part of the first exhibit in a project.

“The project is called the MESA Project and it’s funded through a $250,000 grant through ArtPlace America,” said DeSimio.

MESA stands for Meetings for Environmentally Sustainable Agriculture and the project’s goal is to create a symbiotic relationship among people involved in agriculture, farming and food preparation in a way that is beneficial to the environment. Taylor Hood Farms is a partner in the MESA Project, which will eventually include other farms in Doña Ana County.

In 2015, Julia Barello, head of the NMSU Art Department in the College of Arts and Sciences, contacted WiseSurguy, who had recently completed her MFA in sculpture. Barello encouraged WiseSurguy to apply for the ArtPlace grant, though neither had any idea what the grant could be used for.

Eventually, WiseSurguy came up with the idea of “protecting the environment through the culinary arts,” she said.

“One of the biggest benefits we can have in our area is using the arts to improve the sustainability of our agriculture, both in terms of long-term farming issues—water scarcity, topsoil loss and soil salinization—and in terms of protecting the environment,” said DeSimio.

The project has four parts, DeSimio said, one being the community meals.

“Agriculture and food go hand in hand,” said WiseSurguy. “It’s absolutely a reality that for most of the people who come into this type of work, it’s because they have a love for food and a love for the land and there is that special joy that comes from eating meals together.”

Community meals, therefore, are an ideal way to bring together different portions of the agricultural industry to start talking about ways to yield better crops while protecting the environment, she said.

Part two is an experimental farm, Pata Viva, DeSimio said.

“Pata Viva Farm is the experimental farm part of our grant where we’re going to be implementing all of the different techniques that we’ll be talking about in each one of ours meals in order to get these processes off of the research farms, get them onto working farms,” WiseSurguy said.

Pata Viva’s farming techniques, which focus on reducing water use, topsoil loss and soil salinization, are still in the design phase so the first community meal will take place on July 15 at Taylor Hood Farms, a partner farm that has independently implemented sustainable farming methods through a partnership with professors in NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

Pata Viva Farm and Taylor Hood Farms will be working closely together to expand sustainable agricultural in Dona Ana County, and Taylor Hood Farms will likely be among the first additional sites for any viable techniques that Pata Viva identifies through the MESA Project. DeSimio and his partners hope these techniques will become popular and be implemented on other farms.

One of the biggest components of Pata Viva’s farming techniques is the use of special greenhouses designed to keep temperatures well below 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit, which conventional greenhouses can reach or exceed in the summer. The greenhouses at Pata Viva and Taylor Hood Farms were designed by Carlos Estrada-Vega, a Las Cruces artist, with help from Bryce Richard. These uniquely designed greenhouses can stay below 85 degrees in the summer and above 50 degrees in the winter, without any artificial heating or cooling, said WiseSurguy.

The third part is creating a “very user-friendly technical manual” to further help farmers in implementing these new techniques. DeSimio, a master’s candidate in rhetoric and communication at NMSU, is working with agricultural scientists to develop the manual, which will be routinely updated to address farmers’ issues when implementing these new techniques.

“The fourth part is a final art show at the University Art Gallery,” said DeSimio. “There’s going to be a whole exhibit focused on the intersections of agriculture and the environment.”

The first community meal will take place on July 15 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Taylor Hood Farms. The project runners anticipate around 300 people attending. Register here. For more information about the project, visit mesanm.org.