2006: From desert Oasis, an organic rebirth

The development team at a southwestern New Mexico golf course believes its organic practices could revolutionize course construction and maintenance. Critics of the project, however, say claims of drastic water savings might be pie in the sky.

Sierra del Rio Golf Course, the centerpiece of the planned $100 million Turtleback Mountain Resort and residential community located near Elephant Butte, between Albuquerque and El Paso, Texas, is the state’s first totally organic golf course. And its development team believes they are part of a revolution in golf course agronomics.

Lon Musgrove, president of Organic Systems Consultants, which is providing agronomic consulting services to the course, said Sierra del Rio’s turf will be healthier than that of a typical golf course. That, he said, means divots will grow in quicker and the overall turf will be more resistant to traffic, pathogens and pests. If all goes according to plan, Musgrove said, it also means maintenance practices should produce much less thatch than at a typical Southwestern desert course. But the biggest goal at Sierra del Rio is a 66 percent reduction in the amount of water needed for irrigation, compared with courses of similar size and climate, where synthetic fertilizers are the main source of turf nutrition.

Jack Whitt, Turtleback’s owner, says he decided to adopt organic growing principals at the $10 million golf course because of his respect for the natural beauty of the land and as a way to overcome the problem of water shortages and water quality throughout the Southwest.

“The truth of the matter is the soil is fairly salty here, and the water we are using has 180 parts per million of sodium,” Whitt said. “While that is not excessively high, it is under the drinking water standards for the state of New Mexico. For agricultural purposes it’s still a significant amount.

“Commercial fertilizers, like ammonium sulfate, also have a significant amount of sodium, and after the nitrogen leaches out, you’re left with all that salt. So we were just looking for a way that we could operate a commercial golf course and still be very environmentally friendly.”

Sierra del Rio, which is expected to open early next year, is being developed on the site of the Oasis Golf Resort, which closed several years ago after 30 years of operation. Sierra del Rio architect Dick Phelps said the soil was so compacted when he first visited the site last year that stakes used to mark the course could not be driven into the ground.

The course was bulldozed to a depth of about 18 inches, and 2,000 pounds of granulated sulfur and 6,000 pounds of organic fertilizer were mixed into the sandy soil throughout the course. The sulfur helped neutralize soil pH, bringing it down from 9 to a slightly acidic 6.5, which is more suitable for growing. The organic fertilizer, developed by Musgrove after more than 20 years of research in organic farming, comprises mineral-enriched poultry litter that is 27 percent carbon and 6 percent nitrogen.

A key difference between organic and synthetic fertilizers is the nature of their nitrogen components, Musgrove said. Synthetic fertilizers contain water-soluble nitrogen. The nitrogen found in organic fertilizers, Musgrove said, is bound to the carbon in the fertilizer and is absorbed by the plant, reducing the chance for runoff.

Because Sierra del Rio’s soil lacks sufficient microbes, billions are added through a solution known as Worm-Gold, a product made from the digestive parts of earthworms. The mix is stored in a 500-gallon tank in the pump house where twice per month it is added to the irrigation water, Musgrove said.

The presence of nitrogen throughout the organic soil mixture encourages deeper root growth, which allows plants to tap into water in the soil, further reducing the need to irrigate, Musgrove said. Three weeks after the course was seeded and sodded this August, the roots in the rye/Kentucky bluegrass tees, fairways and surrounds and the Tyee creeping bentgrass greens already had grown to about 4 inches, Musgrove said. Eventually, he said, they will reach down to about 16 inches.

Phelps, who has designed many courses in the Midwest and Southwest and provided design-consulting services on several other projects, said Sierra del Rio could have a significant impact on the future of golf course development, particularly where water is in short supply.

“I think it has great promise,” Phelps said. “The sod that we put down just has gone crazy. It’s been a little more difficult to get the seeded areas to grow because you need to have some pretty good nutrition right in that top layer where the seedling is. Lon has done some experimenting in getting an organic fertilizer in the that top half inch and it seems to be working.”

The project has received the support of the Sierra Club.

“Given the fact that there are going to be golf courses, we would certainly rather see golf courses that were designed with those kinds of responsible attitudes,” said Dan Lorimier, conservation coordinator of the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande chapter.

Still, the project has its skeptics.

Pat Gross, director of the U.S. Golf Association Green Section Southwest Region, said he was unfamiliar with the project, but found the claim of reducing the need for water by two-thirds difficult to believe.

“I am all for organic practices reducing pesticides and chemical fertilizers use; I think that is a good thing,” Gross said. “But what I see is some people adopting these practices and making claims that they really can’t support from a scientific basis.”

Bernhard Leinauer, an extension specialist in the plant sciences department at New Mexico State University, is even more critical. Leinauer, who directs two USGA-funded water research projects, calls Musgrove’s claims “hogwash.”

Musgrove counters that the organic growing system used at Sierra del Rio was developed over two decades by himself and other scientists working in close collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. He said that the methods were proven over time in organic farming.

“Even though we have beautiful grass growing at Sierra del Rio, there are people who show up and say it will never work,” Musgrove said. “You know the old story about leading a horse to water; sometimes you can’t make him drink.”

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