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Jim Sais, agriculture agent, expert gardener dies at 80

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — James R. “Jim” Sais pruned artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s grape vines, organized Albuquerque’s first growers market, wrote a weekly gardening column for the Journal and worked 33 years for New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service.

Jim Sais

Jim Sais

It is no stretch to say that Sais, who died May 22 at age 80, contributed continuously to New Mexico’s agricultural and horticultural landscape from his childhood on a Valencia County truck farm right through the last days of his life.

“In fact, the week before he died, we went to our grandson Jace’s fifth-grade class at S.Y. Jackson (Elementary School), and Jim gave a talk called ‘Gardening From Groceries,'” said Sue Sais, Jim’s wife.

Sue Sais said her husband died as a result of a stroke following surgery for a brain tumor.

He was born in 1937 in Los Lentes, which is between Isleta Pueblo and Los Lunas. He got his early education in making things grow on the family farm.

“They grew chile, watermelons and fruit trees,” Sue said. “They would trade (produce) with Isleta Pueblo. Jim got quite a collection of pottery from his trading. He enjoyed that.”

Jim Sais earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now New Mexico State University) and received a master’s degree in agriculture and extension education from the University of Maryland.

He joined the Cooperative Extension Service in 1959 and early on worked as the agriculture extension agent on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation and then, after a stint in the Army, as the assistant Rio Arriba County extension agent in charge of the county 4-H program.

Sue Sais met Jim in EspaƱola in 1964 when she went there from her native Ohio to serve as a missionary nurse for the Evangelical United Brethren Church. It was about the time that Sue and Jim met that artist O’Keeffe called on Jim to prune grape vines at her Abiquiu home.

“They had such a good time,” Sue said. “He loved to talk about Georgia. She wanted him to move over there. I said I didn’t think that was a good idea.”

Sue and Jim were married in 1965.

“He said, ‘I just want you to know that I only know Southwest plants, so we have to stay here,'” Sue said. “That was OK with me. Ohio is a good place to be from. I love New Mexico’s blue skies.”

In 1971, Sue and Jim moved to Bernalillo County, where he took over the county’s 4-H program and was later named extension agent. In 1980, he was appointed extension urban horticulturist for New Mexico State University, stationed in Albuquerque, and in 1987 he was promoted to extension program director for the service’s northern district.

During his years with the extension service, Jim Sais started Master Gardener programs throughout the state and, in the mid ’70s, was responsible for organizing the first growers market in Bernalillo County. He also found the time to do gardening programs on radio and TV, write the weekly “Yard and Garden” column for the Journal from 1975 to 1988, and talk to just about anybody or any group that wanted to hear about horticulture.

“He gave lectures to practically every garden club in town,” said Judy Nickell, who worked at the late Albuquerque Tribune from 1957 to 1988 and wrote the “Soil & Toil” gardening column for the Tribune during many of those years.

“Every gardening club considered him an honorary member. He gave chile ristra(-making) demonstrations at the State Fair and he judged at the State Fair. The fact that there are green things growing in Albuquerque is because of Jim. He told people how to plant their lawns and water them.”

Services were held last week at Asbury United Methodist Church in Albuquerque. Sais was interred at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

Besides his wife, survivors include his children, Kimberly Sais of Washington, D.C., Todd Sais of Los Lunas, and John Sais of Albuquerque; five grandchildren; and two sisters.

He is also survived by a verdant yard, trees and plants at the Northeast Heights home he shared with his wife.

“Jim said that apricots bloom about every seven years,” Sue Sais said. “You should see our apricot tree. The apricots were so thick, they looked like clusters of grapes. I had to go out and thin them.”

It’s a fitting legacy for a man devoted to making things grow and blossom.