Retired professor now known as jelly maker

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He’s been making prickly pear jelly for almost 40 years.

John Larson - El Defensor Chieftain: Al Smoake inspects one of the 300 cactus plants at his Lemitar farm.

Al Smoake, professor emeritus of biology at New Mexico Tech, made his first jellies — prickly pear and mesquite bean — in 1976, and by 1994 was selling them at the Socorro Farmers Market, and in 2007 he and his wife Jane founded A&J Family Farms, LLC.

Anthony Welch - El Defensor Chieftain: Jane Smoake prepares some mesquite beans for a jelly.

Up until now they have had to scour the state for prickly pear fruit, from San Antonio to Bernalillo — sometimes coming home with up to 1,500 pounds of fruit — but a couple of years ago he decided to produce it himself. Although he still gets fruit from Sierra County and Albuquerque, Smoake now grows his own crop of prickly pear cactus and has a total 300 prickly pear plants in a one-acre field next to his house in Lemitar.

Growing a field of cactus requires some adaptation, at least when a distinguished biologist is doing it.

Smoake knows his business.

“This year we hope to get 100 pounds at first,” Smoake said. “Eventually we expect anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 pounds from the 300 plants in this field.”

In an area where it seems to spring up anywhere and everywhere, growing a field of prickly pear cactus for its fruit is not as easy as it may look.

“You have to be aware of wildlife, especially ground squirrels and other rodents, even skunks,” Smoake said. “And since I do not want to use herbicides or pesticides they have to be tended carefully.”

He uses a drip irrigation system for watering, but over-watering is a major concern, so he waters no more than four to five times a year.

“You water at the first planting, then water again when they start budding, and again when the first fruit appears,” Smoake said. “I don’t flood irrigate because I don’t want the weeds.”

When weeds do appear, they are pulled out by hand.

“Bindweed can take over if you’re not careful,” he added, but if it gets bad he uses a custom designed piece of wood to shield the plant if he has to spray around it.

Fully grown, the plant will be eight to 10 feet in diameter, so spacing is important.

Since the summer of 2010 he and Jane have been using the Community Kitchen at Finley Gym for making the jelly.

“We make the extract there,” he said. “Before we made the first batches in the coffee house kitchen when it was run by Patty Frisch.”

The Smoakes started out with two plain jellies, prickly pear and mesquite, but he said people would ask for certain varieties, “so we experimented to get the right amount of cinnamon, apple, green chile.

“Then we got a bunch of customers together for their critiques,” he said. “Then we started adding other flavorings, such as pineapple and habanero. The habanero is really hot and best used for cooking.”

The Smoakes also make varieties of prickly pear nectar and prickly pear syrup, as well as Honey Mesquite varieties.

“We made Mesquite Bean Jelly, it’s from the mesquite bean tree, but people apparently didn’t like the word bean in the name,” he said. “It started selling better after we changed the label to Honey Mesquite Jelly.”

The Smoakes sell their products in a number of outlets, including three stores in Socorro.

The also market in Albuquerque, Hatch, Old Mesilla, Santa Fe, Pueblo, Colorado and in Arizona.

“I just filled an order by phone for a lady in Wisconsin,” Smoake said.