Initiation of a New Mexico Participatory Vegetable Breeding Program

Progress report for OW20-353

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2020: $49,571.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Grant Recipient: New Mexico State University
Region: Western
State: New Mexico
Principal Investigator:
Charles Havlik
NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas
Dr. Bradley Tonnessen
New Mexico State University
Dr. Stephanie Walker
New Mexico State University
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Project Information


Practicing sustainable agriculture requires using less outside inputs and reducing environmental impact. In order to achieve this balance of productivity and resource frugality, a level of adaptiveness is demanded from both the crop and the farmer. For many vegetables grown in the U.S., generations of farmers saving their own seed resulted in the production of landrace varieties. These unique crops have evolved through selections made by the grower to promote tolerance to many stresses faced in a specific region. Currently, many of our efforts to publicly breed new vegetable varieties are focused on one location or institution, neglecting the diverse landscapes and climates that do not match these breeding sites. In addition, institutional breeding focuses on larger growers, and the cultural methods involved in large-scale production. These conditions are not the same for the small farmer, who grows for local markets and small food distributors. Many farmers in New Mexico are serving these small communities and are residing in different elevations and climatic conditions. We are proposing an initiation of the New Mexico Participatory Vegetable Breeding Program. The purpose of this project will be to educate and cooperate with small vegetable producers in New Mexico to create breeding and seed-saving operations on their own farms. The endeavor will help to increase and preserve diversity of crops grown in the state, as well as breed for hardiness in locally-adapted vegetables. This project aims to promote cultural heritage and local food economies through an innovative approach to plant breeding.

Project Objectives:

1. Development of breeding plans at each participant farm (Year 1)

Each farm/farmer focuses on specific needs for their respective crop. Thus, decisions need to be made with consideration of the land, cultural farming methods, and climate pertaining to each location. Farm visits will be conducted by the PI to discuss breeding goals and to take initial observations of the focus crops.

Outcome: Detailed plans for each farm indicating planting design, breeding workflow, data collection, and seed-saving strategies.


2. Implementation of breeding plans (Years 2 & 3)

This objective involves performing the annual process of planting, observing, selecting the best performers on the farm and in replicated field trials, seed-saving, and overall assessment of the growing season.

Outcome: Increased self-sufficiency of the farmer with on-farm breeding skills. Seed obtained from plant selections for continuation of breeding plan.


3. Education, outreach, and dissemination of results (Years 2 & 3)

A workshop for basic breeding techniques will be given for all farmer participants at the end of the first year, during the annual New Mexico Sustainable Agriculture Conference in December. Presentations will be made about current status and updates during a special session at this conference at the end of years 2 and 3. Distribution of brochures pertaining to the project will be done at public events such as the NM Sustainable Agriculture Conference, farmer’s markets and field days. Social media content describing the process and benefits of the program will be developed and released to the public. Field days given at an NMSU Agricultural Experiment Stations will showcase the variety trials being done for the project.

Outcome: An increased awareness across agricultural professionals and the general public about participatory vegetable breeding and the importance of locally-adapted vegetables.


Figure 1: Timeline of objectives

Year 1

The first year of the project is a planning and assessment phase (Fig. 1). The first growing season will involve farm visits from the PI to assess the current status of each farmers’ operations and vegetables in question. There will be two visits to each location, one at the start of the season, and one at the time of harvest. Two participants will need initial variety testing (Vida Verde Farm, Van Buren Middle School). These variety trials will be started in the spring of 2020 at NMSU agricultural experiment stations for observation and selection. At the end of year 1, all participants will attend the NM Sustainable Agriculture Conference for a planning meeting and educational workshop.

Years 2 & 3

These two years will be focused on implementation of breeding plans, continuation of farm visits, and outreach activities (Fig. 1). Participants market booths will advertise the program, and NMSU will promote the program at the Las Cruces Farmers Market. At the NMSU Sustainable Agriculture conference in December of both years, participants, the PI, and Co-PIs will present on current status, and well as host a session on breeding for the public.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • David Archuleta - Producer
  • Seth Matlick - Producer
  • Travis McKenzie - Producer (Educator)
  • Anjel Ortiz - Producer
  • Miguel Santistevan - Producer
  • Ramon Sias - Producer


Materials and methods:

Experiment Locations

The experimental sites used for this study include each participant’s farm and other growing sites affiliated with NMSU, representing different growing regions present across New Mexico.

NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas. 1036 Miller Road, Los Lunas, NM 87031. Centered in the Middle Rio Grande region. Representing climatic conditions of farms in/near cities of Albuquerque and Corrales.

NMSU Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde. 371 County Road 40, Alcalde, NM 87511. A research site for conditions in north-central NM.

NMSU Jose Fernandez Memorial Garden (JFMG). NMSU Main Campus, Las Cruces, NM 88003. Started in 2019 by Co-PI, Dr. Stephanie Walker, under the Jose Fernandez endowed chair award. This field is a designated vegetable trial garden to identify new varieties and species capable of being grown in the southern NM region.

On-Farm Breeding Method Toolbox

There are multiple conventional breeding strategies for improving or adapting vegetable varieties for specific regions. The utilization of these different methods at each participant’s farm will be dependent on their respective breeding needs. The methods that are reasonable for this project are defined below:

1. Variety Trials

This is a test of multiple publicly/commercially available crop varieties presumed to display a desired trait such as heat tolerance. They are planted simultaneously and evaluated based on their performance. This is especially helpful when a trait is needed, but the grower has no initial variety preference.

2. Single Plant Selection

In a population of a particular variety that varies in phenotype (segregating), a single plant can be selected that stands out with the desired traits. The flowers from this plant can be genetically isolated and seed then saved for planting the subsequent generation.

3. Genetic Isolation / Variety Maintenance

The risk of outcrossing with undesirable wild relatives or different varieties of the same species is an important issue for farmers trying to preserve genetically unique varieties. In this project, it pertains to landrace chile and melons. There are various tools to manage this problem and keep cross-pollination from occuring, such as the use of cloth mesh cages, isolation by distance, or other physical barriers. When trying to keep a variety genetically stable with steady allele frequencies (variety maintenance), certain numbers of the crop must be planted for seed (Colley et al 2010). During variety maintenance, individual plants that are phenotypic outliers can be removed from the population before seed harvest.

Development of Breeding Plans (Obj. 1) and Implementation of these plans (Obj. 2)

Each farm will present new and different challenges with their respective breeding needs. The details of each participant farm are given in Table 1.

Table 1

- Obj. 1:

Assessments at each farm will be performed by the PI through farm visits, starting in the spring of 2020, with a second visit at the time of harvest for each focus crop. For all of the participating farms, this will involve discussions on farming methods, planting times, expected and observed plant phenotypes, and a plan for the following year.

For farms where variety trials will need to be implemented (Vida Verde Farm and Van Buren Middle School), the crops will be pro-actively planted in spring of 2020 at NMSU JFMG prior to the expected award date of this proposed project. Varieties of lettuce, melons, and landrace chile will be planted in a replicated, randomized complete block design to assess heat tolerance, yield, watering rate, and fertility requirements. Best performers will be tested at the respective farms in year 2, as well as at the NMSU Los Lunas station, which represents the climate of both farms.

Two participants, Zitro Farms and Sol Feliz Farm, are in need of genetic preservation of their landrace chile and melon, “Chimayo,” and “Melon Mexicano,” respectively. Due to the fact that outcrossing with conventional varieties has already occurred, the first step in achieving a “phenotype rescue” will involve single plant selections for the historical landrace phenotype. These selections can be made during year 1 of the project.

The remaining participant farms, Sias Growers, and Herbal & Chile Creations, are pursuing a consistent, improved phenotype for a crop that has been grown for many generations on their land. During the first year of the project, single plant selections will be made. The genetically isolated seed will be planted the following year at the participant’s farm and/or NMSU Alcalde.

- Obj. 2:

During the next two years of the project, the breeding goals will be continued. Genetically isolated seed from single plants will be expanded to replicated small plot trials. The target phenotype will be assessed for consistency across replicates. During this stage, separate plots independent of observational experiments will be isolated for bulk seed production. If the line of seed shows a consistent positive phenotype in the experimental plots, bulk seed will be used for subsequent field trials.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

7 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Online trainings
2 Published press articles, newsletters
4 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Other educational activities: “SARE Farmer Fly-In”

Participation Summary:

72 Farmers
83 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Education and Outreach Activities


Consultations (7)

              For this project, the initial goal in year 1 specified farm visits from the PI and Co-PI, Bradley Tonnessen and Charles Havlik, respectively.  During the spring and summer of 2020, Dr. Tonnessen and Mr. Havlik gave consultations to each of our 5 participant farmers on methods of plant selection, seed saving strategies for each targeted vegetable, and recommendations for experimental methods.  Participant farmers, explaining their breeding projects to neighboring farmers, gave another two consultations.  They gave advice on seed saving and maintaining a genetically stable population for their neighbors’ chile.

Curricula, factsheets, or educational tools (1)

              During this spring semester of 2021 at New Mexico State University, Dr. Stephanie Walker and Dr. Bradley Tonnessen are teaching a Special Topics course (AGRO 449) on plant breeding.  This class highlights the various breeding and seed saving projects conducted by the vegetable extension program at NMSU.  The students learn about chile breeding techniques and basic genetics concepts for a complete understanding of the breeding process.  They also learn how to grow various vegetables with intent on saving seed.  Content of the course includes anecdotes and data shared from activities pertaining to the NM Participatory Vegetable Breeding Program.

Journal Articles (0)

              No journal articles were produced during this first year of the project.  Data has not sufficiently accumulated for multi-year trials and statistical validation.  We intend on publication after this second growing season.

On-Farm Demonstrations (0)

              Due to COVID-19 restrictions, farm visits planned for members of the public were cancelled.

Online Trainings (1)

Tonnessen, B. W. 2021.  Seed saving for local adaptation: Lessons from the New Mexico participatory plant breeding program. Norwegian Seed Savers (KVANN), March 2021 [Virtual Workshop]

              This online training was presented to members of the Norwegian Seed Savers (KVANN) (  The workshop was three hours, and the content explained how to establish a participatory breeding program, and the results and experiences made from the first year of this program in New Mexico.

Published Press Articles, Newsletters (2)

Tonnessen, B. W. 2021. Organic chile farming in New Mexico.  Chile Pepper Institute Newsletter. February 2021.

              This publication explained the various ways that farmers successfully grow chile using organic methods in New Mexico.  The newsletter article was informed by interviews with various farmers, including the farmers on this particular project.

Walker, S., Tonnessen, B. W., Joukhadar, I., Garvin, L. 2020. Smart Vegetable Seed Saving for Home Gardeners and Small Farmers.  NMSU Cooperative Extension Service.

              This publication focused on seed saving methods, genetic isolation techniques, and population management for New Mexicans interested in seed saving.  The article contained many of the techniques currently being used by farmers on this project.

Tours, Workshop Field Days (0)

              Due to COVID-19 restrictions, no in-person tours were given of the vegetable variety trial garden at NMSU, or any farmer’s field in the project.  As restrictions are lifted and participant farmers feel more comfortable with group meetings, the tours will resume.

Webinars, Talks, Presentations (4)

Tonnessen, B. W. 2021. Organic methods of chile production in New Mexico. New Mexico Chile Conference, February, 2021, Las Cruces, NM [Oral Presentation]

              The New Mexico Chile Conference is an annual event held in Las Cruces, NM.  This oral presentation was given about the successful organic farming of chile in NM.  Many of the farmer testimonials in this presentation were from participant farmers on this project.

Tonnessen, B. W. 2020. Seed saving and on-farm breeding. New Mexico Sustainable Agriculture Online Workshop Series. October 2020, virtual [Oral Presentation]

              The WSARE-funded Sustainable Agriculture Workshop Series was held online in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.  Of the multiple workshop presentations, this presentation focused on on-farm breeding techniques showcased from farmers that are participants on this granted project.

Tonnessen, B. W. 2020. Epigenetics for the seed saver.  Seed School for Farmers, Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance. October 2020, virtual. [Oral Presentation]

              This presentation was given to the members of the non-profit, Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance.  The presentation gave an overview of the genetic aspects of seed-saving, and gave examples of landrace chile and lettuce experiments done by participant farmers on this project.

Havlik, C. & Tonnessen, B. W. 2020.  Participatory breeding project for NM.  Los Lunas Ag Science Center Virtual Chile Field Day. September, 2020, Los Lunas, NM.

              This presentation was during a virtual field day.  PI and Co-PI Bradley Tonnessen and Charles Havlik gave an overview of the latest updates on this project.

Other (1)

“SARE Farmer Fly-In”

              The PIs of this project were contacted by coordinators of SARE in Washington, D.C. regarding an annual event known as the “Farmer Fly-in.”  Bradley Tonnessen and participant farmer, David Archuleta, agreed to join in this event.  During the week of March 22nd, Dr. Tonnessen and Mr. Archuleta had two virtual meetings.  The first met with directors of SARE and NIFA, and the second was with staffers from the office of Senator Martin Heinrich.  During these meetings, the personal experiences and community benefits of this project and SARE in New Mexico were presented.  The goal of these meetings were to give real-life examples of what this federal funding is achieving.  The meetings were a great success and new relationships have been cultivated.


Upcoming activities

              In 2021, we intend to continue presentation of the results from this project at the WSARE Sustainable Agriculture Conference or Online Workshop Series (depending on COVID-109 restrictions).  There will be a field day to highlight the vegetable variety trials occurring at the Jose Fernandez Memorial Garden.  Participant farmers will be asked to give a presentation at these events as well.  A peer reviewed publication is planned for the lettuce variety trials being conducted for Vida Verde Farms.  As the PIs are asked to present on seed saving in the future, the findings from this project will be presented, with WSARE acknowledged.

Learning Outcomes

6 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

5 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
5 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Project Outcomes



Overview (Year 1)

              This report outlines the research outcomes accomplished in the first year of the “Initiation of a New Mexico Participatory Vegetable Breeding Program.”  The overall goal for this year focused on planning and assessment of farmer breeding goals, and initial plant selections.  This work will progress the mission of increasing environmental adaptation and farmer autonomy with seed.  During the spring and summer months of 2020, farm visits were carried out by PI’s Bradley Tonnessen and Charles Havlik.  The visits pertained to planning of breeding projects in a 3-year model, as well as assessing the scale of work limited by labor, time, and space for each participant’s farmland.  Plant breeding equipment was provided for each farmer as well, including cloth seed cages for genetic isolation of plant selections. Following these visits, farmers were in regular contact with the PI, and the proper collecting of seed was ensured.  This year, the entire group, including participant farmers and PIs, met over Zoom for discussion about 2021 growing season plans.  Plant selections will be grown for observation and in some cases, yield trials will be performed, for continuation of breeding efforts to develop locally-adapted varieties of vegetables.


Issues due to COVID-19

              Disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the number and duration of farm visits.  The farm visits focused on assistance in field work that was planned to be provided by NMSU could not be accomplished.  Multi-location variety trials were reduced to a single location in Las Cruces to minimize exposure risk.  A notable setback involved one participant farmer, Travis McKenzie, who was unable to proceed with the project due to cutbacks in school programs, including the campus farm at Van Buren Middle School.  The annual New Mexico Sustainable Agriculture Conference, funded by the WSARE professional development grant, was cancelled due to the pandemic.  Instead, a weekly webinar series was held in the months of October and November.  The subjects focused on a wide range of topics, including one workshop held by the PI, Bradley Tonnessen, titled “Seed Saving and On-Farm Breeding.”  This presentation highlighted the projects involved in the Participatory Vegetable Breeding Program.


Project Outcomes by participant farmers


Seth Matlick, Vida Verde Farms, Albuquerque, NM

              Seth Matlick is a mixed vegetable farmer, providing produce for restaurants and selling at local farmer’s markets.  His breeding goal involves extending the growing season of lettuce further into the summer.  His customers would enjoy buying lettuce heads later into summer, but many varieties of lettuce turn bitter and bolt due to the high heat.  In order to work towards obtaining lettuce varieties that can resist bolting during heat stress, we began a variety trial at the Jose Fernandez Memorial Garden (JFMG) at NMSU campus in Las Cruces, NM.

The main goal of the lettuce variety trial was to identify lines with the highest heat tolerance.  We selected eight different varieties claimed to be heat tolerant from multiple seed sources/companies (Table 1).  To push the boundaries of heat tolerance, we planted a second trial of the same varieties to measure performance under higher heat in late spring/early summer.  Each variety was grown in three replicated plots of 20 ft., organized in a randomized complete block design.

              Lettuce yields were greater in the second trial.  Lettuce size at maturity did not differ between successions.  The improved performance of the second planting is most likely due to the correct timing between seeding and transplanting.  The first trial had a severe delay in planting time due to weather conditions.  Looking at both plantings, some varieties stood out for particular characteristics.  Taste notes on each variety at harvest across both successions proved 7JFG20 (Anuenue) as the sweetest and least bitter of the eight varieties.  In terms of heat tolerance, measured by latest time to bolting, the best performer was 3JFG20 (Mikola RG X).  Two other varieties, 1JFG20 (Parris Island Cos) and 6JFG20 (Sparx), were scored relatively high across all variables. 

              We left the best lettuce performers to bolt and set seed.  Due to high self-pollination in lettuce, short distance isolation is enough to keep seed pure.  This fact allows us to save seed directly in the field (Figure 2). The seed saved from the top four varieties (Anuenue, Mikola RG X, Parris Island Cos, and Sparx) are currently being planted and transplanted at Vida Verde Farms (Spring 2021).  Each variety will be planted in three replicate plots, ten feet in length, with 25 heads per plot.  The lettuce will be assessed for yield, quality, and bolting time.  Seed will be saved from the late bolting individuals for planting in future trials of 2022.  The variety trials are being repeated at the JFMG in Las Cruces in Spring 2021 as well to obtain enough data for submission to a peer reviewed journal.


Anjel Ortiz, Zitro Farms, Chimayo, NM

              Anjel Ortiz is a farmer in the northern part of New Mexico, producing vegetables for local non-profits servicing the community, and for sale at local markets.  Anjel is striving to develop the traits of a famous landrace chile, “Chimayo.”  This type of chile pepper has a small pod relative to larger NM pod-types.  It is adapted to a high, dry climate and short growing season.  Ultimately, he hopes to be the steward for this germplasm.  Thus, learning genetic isolation and plant selection techniques are imperative for his goal.  In 2020, Anjel planted about 500 plants each from 5 different seed sources provide by various families in the Chimayo region.  Unlike many other chile growers, Anjel continues to seed his chile directly into the soil.  This method dates back generations in Chimayo.  In order to foster the traits that allow this variety to be hardy in the short growing season and cool weather, he continues to grow it in the cultural fashion in which it was developed. Through his experience and the knowledge of the community, he made selections of 14 plants that held phenotypic characteristics most like the classic “Chimayo” chile pepper.  During our visit to his farm, we provided him with guidance on using cloth netting to prevent pollinators from causing outcrossing with his selections.  This involves removing all fruit and open flowers before covering, to ensure future developed fruit is selfed. This year, he will be planting 100 individuals from seed of each single plant selection.  Observations and assessments of uniformity will be made during the season.  Depending on amount of segregation in the populations, more seed cages will be utilized for a second round of single plant selections.


David Archuleta, Herbal & Chile Creations, Alcalde, NM

              David Archuleta is a farmer, herbalist, and healer with a plot of land in northern New Mexico.  He provides produce and herbal supplements at a local farmer’s market and for the surrounding community.  He is currently working on developing high yielding, good tasting, appropriately shaped chile peppers resulting from a cross between “Chimayo” and “Espanola Improved.”  The variety “Espanola Improved” comes from the breeding program at NMSU, release in 1984.  This chile exhibits early maturity, producing long, thin pods with broad shoulders.  The cross results in a small size pepper, with somewhat wrinkled skin, and a characteristic thickness and taste (Figure 3).  The segregation among his population is high, so our goal is to make single plant selections, using cloth mesh bags.  Eventually, we hope to bring uniformity to the breeding line and consistently high yields.  In 2020, fourteen single plant selections were covered with cloth bags to obtain selfed seed (Figure 4).  This resulting seed will be planted in plots of >100 plants per selection in spring 2021. 



Miguel Santistevan, Sol Feliz Farm, Taos, NM

              Miguel Santistevan is a farmer and teacher that practices seed saving and permaculture on his small farm in northern NM.  His seed saving project involves the “Melon Mexicano.”  This type of melon has remained a staple in his family for generations (Figure 5).  He obtained the seed recently, and after growing it out, realized that it had outcrossed with other melons such as honeydew.  This is due to the fact that its characteristic fruit shape, aesthetic, and flesh have shown dramatic levels of segregation in the population.  Thus, our project focuses on rescuing the phenotype of the “Melon Mexicano” from this existing germplasm.  In 2020, irrigation was disrupted and only a few plants survived to maturity.  Of those plants, a few had the phenotype of interest.  Those seeds were collected and saved for planting in late spring 2021.  Each seed will be brought to maturity to maximize the selection population in 2021.  The plants resembling the expected phenotype will be selfed and crossed with similar individuals.  Only this seed will be saved for planting in 2022.


Ramon Sias, Sias Growers, Corrales, NM

              Ramon Sias is a mixed vegetable grower in central New Mexico, near Albuquerque.  He grows produce for farmer’s markets and bulk selling within the community.  He has developed a green chile variety known as “Corrales Native.”  This fruit has a longer and thinner phenotype compared to traditional NM green chile such as “Big Jim.”  The taste and look of “Corrales Native” green chile has attracted buyers due to its special quality.  Recently, the germplasm has become contaminated with commercial variety genetics due to accidental cross-pollination.  This project aims to preserve the phenotype of “Corrales Native” amidst neighboring farmers growing commercial varieties.  During the farm visit, we made selections and bagged 14 different plants with desired fruit characteristics, healthy and vigorous growth, and high yield (Figures 6, 7).

              Later in the season, an outbreak of Fusarium Wilt occurred in the field.  Due to this, many plants did not mature fully, and seed may have been scarce from some of the selections.  In 2021, all the seeds from the surviving plants will be planted (100 plants for each selection), for further plant selection and seed saving to preserve the “Corrales Native” phenotype.

Success stories:

This section will be completed towards the end of the project.  Currently, after the first year, breeding and seed-saving efforts are still in beginning stages.


Due to the early stage of the project (Year 1), this section will be left blank until completion of the proposed activities.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.