New Mexicans have been growing wine grapes since 1629, when Spanish monks planted vines in the Rio Grande valley near present day Socorro. Through the centuries, viticulturists have demonstrated that the state’s semi-arid climate and plentiful sunshine can be ideal for vineyards.
Wine consumption and the wine industry are thriving, adding approximately $50 million annually in tax revenue to the state’s coffers, according to the National Association of American Wineries 2017 economic impact report.
However, vineyard owners, viticulturists and farmers of other crops are looking for ways to diversify their operations. One way is to expand to a niche market of table grapes.
New Mexico State University College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences researchers listening to growers think there is real potential to create a table grape industry in the state.
“This could be an emerging New Mexico market,” said Dale Ellis, Las Cruces small vineyard owner and winemaking instructor at NMSU. “Table grapes could join chile, pecans and wine in the specifically New Mexican market.”
Table grapes are the third most consumed fresh fruit in the United States, behind bananas and apples, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
“Production and sales of these grapes could have a substantial impact on local New Mexico economies,” said Gill Giese, NMSU Cooperative Extension Service viticulture specialist. “Especially, areas being hard hit by declines in mining, and oil and gas industries, but having underutilized farmland close to urbanized population centers.”
Ellis and others are not imagining large commercial operations like in California or South America. They see table grapes as ideal for small operations that want to sell grapes at niche markets, such as local farmers’ markets and fresh produce stores.
“There is a lot of interest in growing table grapes by backyard gardeners and small acreage vineyards,” Ellis said. “They just need to know what variety will grow in New Mexico.”
NMSU is conducting a variety trial to determine which variety will thrive in New Mexico’s climate.
“New Mexico has approximately 10 climate zones from hot and dry desert to highlands prone to late spring and early fall frosts and damaging winter cold,” Giese said.
To determine which variety performs optimally in the various climate zones, 15 table grape cultivars are being grown at NMSU agricultural research centers at Los Lunas, Alcalde and Farmington.
“With the three experimental sites, the study will account for a substantial amount of the diversity of New Mexico’s growing conditions.” Giese said.
Varieties included in the study are Thompson Seedless, Princess, Himrod, Crimson Seedless, Red Globe, Autumn Royal, Autumn King, Neptune, Hope, Faith, Joy, Gratitude, Swenson Red and Everest Seedless.
Six different cultivars were planted in May. Nine additional varieties will be planted in the fall.
“These varieties offer production advantages of cold-hardiness, cluster architecture, phylloxera tolerance and staggered ripening timing, in addition to improved consumer preferred taste, aroma, seedlessness and compositional characteristics.”
The research will assess and gauge consumer acceptance of the varieties.
“We plan to have consumer tastings at retail venues and farmers markets,” Giese said. “There will also be field days for growers, workshops and presentations through Master Gardener trainings, as well as on-line and printed reports.”
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The research team is comprised of Giese, Shengrui Yao, NMSU Extension fruit specialist; Kevin Lombard, superintendent at the Farmington experimental farm; and Extension agricultural agents Tom Dominguez, Don Martinez and Bonnie Hopkins in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and San Juan counties, respectively.
The variety trial is funded by a New Mexico Department of Agriculture specialty crop block grant.