Los Lunas science center meeting needs of commercial, urban agriculture by Jane Moorman

New Mexico State University’s Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas is alive with a wide array of research from commercial agriculture to urban horticulture that addresses the changing social environment of the middle Rio Grande valley.

“I’m pretty excited about where the station is headed,” said Mark Marsalis, superintendent and Extension forage specialist. “Historically, this station has been more commercially focused, but now we have a very good blend of work I’m doing, which is more commercial production of alfalfa and grass pastures, combined with the more urban horticultural angle.”

The center houses the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences’ new statewide Extension specialists, Gill Giese, viticulturist; Ashley Bennett, integrated pest management; and Marisa Thompson, horticulturalist, as well as Kelly White, Master Gardener program coordinator. With appointments combining research with Extension outreach, the specialists are bringing new projects to the 207-acre farm.

Bennett and White have obtained a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for delivery of IPM education and outreach to New Mexico communities. 

“We will receive $634,286 over the next three years to implement several projects,” Bennett said. “The grant will support a research and demonstration garden at the Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, advanced IPM curriculum for the Master Gardener program, education on pollinator health and conservation, IPM strategies for parks and recreational lands, and it will develop a citizen science program to monitor beneficial insects in the urban areas.”

NMSU has grape variety trials in Las Cruces and Farmington, and formerly in Los Lunas. Giese is reestablishing a vineyard at the farm to conduct research.

“The growing conditions in New Mexico are challenging mainly due to the wide variety and diversity of vineyard sites, as well as significant changes in temperature,” Giese said. 

In addition to addressing growing challenges, one of Giese’s priorities is to help growers increase both quality and production efficiency.

“I want to work with county Extension Service agents to help growers,” he said. “I’d like to get all the growers on the same page, help them improve wine quality and facilitate marketing in order to make a consistent profit.”

New during the 2017 growing season was a collaboration with New Mexico Tech and Sandia National Labs on a project looking at the gas emissions from agricultural fields.

“Benjamin Duval from NM Tech’s biology department is measuring with very sophisticated equipment the greenhouse gases that come off the soil when we do a plowing or irrigation,” Marsalis said. “Last summer, every time we ran a plow on our sorghum trial site, he was there measuring what was released. When we plow we are breaking carbon that releases carbon dioxide and other nitrogen-based gases, which are more potent than other greenhouse gases.”

Los Lunas is participating in a statewide sorghum variety trial, determining irrigation and fertilizer amounts.

Sorghum as a forage is a good candidate crop for reduced water situations, harsher growing conditions and marginal soils. It is also very efficient at nitrogen use. 

“I agree there is a future for sorghum once water becomes a really limiting issue, as it is in other parts of New Mexico and the world,” Marsalis said. “Sorghum is a very high biomass producer. It produces a lot of tons however you use it – bioenergy, green manure or feeding animals. It can be baled as hay, or chopped into silage.”

Ongoing research includes variety trials of chile for mechanical harvest, landrace chile production, and pecan and jujube fruit tree cultivar tests. Additionally, a pinto bean variety trail was held this year.

In NMSU’s agricultural science center system Los Lunas is unique because of its partnership with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Since the creation of the farm in 1957, NRCS has had a plant material center on the site.

“Los Lunas is one of 25 USDA plant material centers in the United States,” said Bernadette Cooney, the plant material center manager. “In our research department we are participating in a multi-year crop-cover study of eight different species comprised of 61 different cultivars that is being done at all of the centers. The study is to determine which species work best in the different regions.”

Historically, the center has focused on foundation seed production of cool and warm season grasses, and producing cottonwood and willow riparian restoration material.

New Mexico State University undergraduate student Gabrielle Hastings helps harvest South American papa criolla potatoes during research at the Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas. NMSU collaborated with U.S. Department of Agriculture research geneticist Kathy Haynes to see which breeding lines will grow in New Mexico.