Behind the Courtyard by Marriott Las Cruces at New Mexico State University, nestled in a field south of University Avenue, is the Jose Fernandez Garden, a longtime alfalfa field recently transformed into a vegetable oasis. It is now the site where the NMSU Cooperative Extension Service Vegetable Program in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences conducts vegetable variety trials.
“We started the Jose Fernandez Garden to evaluate the performance of vegetable varieties that are relatively unknown, as well as some that are promoted as ‘heat tolerant,’ in southern New Mexico growing conditions. Discovery of novel vegetables that perform well in this part of the state may provide value for local farmers as potential income-generating crops and as additional choices in an overall farm rotation plan,” said Stephanie Walker, Extension vegetable specialist.
“We try some things that people have never heard of,” said Brad Tonnessen, former Extension Plant Sciences senior program specialist. “Essentially, we’re trying out different types of vegetables, but also your garden-variety tomatoes, lettuces and carrots, and trying to see what types do best in this climate with hot summer days and the long season we have down here.”
Vegetables grown in the garden include cucumbers, summer squash, bitter melons, okra and celtuce, an edible plant related to lettuce. After harvesting the crops, CES staff weigh, measure and photograph the vegetables before sharing with community members via a public produce distribution program that launched this past summer.
NMSU staff was pleased with the interest in the garden’s uncommon vegetable and said more than 100 people signed up for the 30 available slots in the distribution program. CES staff distributed the free produce at the Fabian Garcia Science Center.
Community members who received the free produce boxes were asked to complete online questionnaires to provide feedback about the vegetables. They shared their thoughts on how the produce tasted, how they prepared the vegetables, and how they liked the contents of the boxes.
“We use that as data to include with all the measurements to show what would be best, but also what varieties people like,” he said. “We end up with good recommendations for potential alternative crops for farmers and gardeners to try out, as there could be a market out there for it.”
Before his departure in fall 2021, Tonnessen said the community members’ willingness to try new vegetables and expand their palates made for a very positive experience. Walker is continuing the program.
The Jose Fernandez Garden had its first harvest in summer 2020, but with COVID-19 restrictions, a public distribution wasn’t possible, and CES staff donated the crops to the Animal and Range Sciences Department.
In addition to the vegetable variety trials, the garden has a seed-saving component and is experimenting with regenerative agriculture. Working with integrated pest management specialists, CES staff planted native wildflowers in border rows to attract pollinators and beneficial insects that will prey upon pests.
To learn more about the vegetable program, contact Walker at 575-646-4398 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this story was first published in the fall 2021 issue of ACES Magazine. To read the issue, visit https://bit.ly/3qeSbuj.