Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Cultivating New Mexico’s pecan industry

Rene Chavez with South Plains Implements stands among the tractors and implements the company offers to help pecan growers at the Western Pecan Growers Conference at the Las Cruces Convention Center in March. Modernization of the industry was a major topic at the three-day event. (Josh Bachman/New Mexico State University)

LAS CRUCES — As familiar as the internet may be to every corner of the modern business landscape, it was still an unlikely question to pose to an auditorium full of New Mexico ranchers.

“How many of you in the room subscribe to Kim Kardashian?”

The question hung in the air for a long moment, prompting the speaker at the podium — Alexander Ott, executive director of the American Pecan Council — to again prod the unresponsive crowd of several hundred New Mexico ranchers and farmers who were attending this year’s Western Pecan Growers Association Conference.

“Can I see hands?” he asked.

With no raised hands in sight and a smattering of chuckles moving through the high-crowned cowboy hats and starched collared shirts, Ott said, with good humor and feigned resignation: “I don’t see too many of you subscribing to her.”

“Yet two-thirds of Americans actually subscribe to Kim Kardashian,” he said, and delivered the quintessential real-world example of the challenges that the pecan industry — a group of proud agricultural traditionalists — now faces in an uber-competitive global marketplace mired by an ongoing pandemic.

The reality TV star, Ott explained, had tweeted her 65 million followers about her habit of eating pecans every morning with her yogurt. Then Kim’s sister, herself with 60 million twitter followers, tweeted confirmation about the Kardashian morning pecan routine.

“In less than five minutes we had 65 plus 60 million — 125 million people — just like that, getting messages on pecans,” he told the crowd. “You could also see in some of the data, all of a sudden the search for recipes for pecans went up, the searches for pecans went up, all because you had those influencers.”

Delving into the realm of social media opportunities was just one of the issues addressed at the 56th annual pecan conference, which this year was a three-day event, March 8 through March 10, held at the Las Cruces Convention Center. About 80 vendors registered to feature their booths, machinery and merchandise at the venue.

The convention center’s interior ballrooms were filled with the agricultural industry’s latest work horses: turbo-charged farm tractors with load sensors, air-conditioned cabins and powder coat finishes, polished and illuminated for their showroom display.

Outside, barbecue grills’ wafting scents of wood, charcoal and meat mixed with the sharp odors of diesel engines, too large for indoor viewing, which rumbled noisily, drowning out nearby conversations and drawing crowds of interested observers.

“We’ve got a lot of equipment out here,” said Jacob Arnold, motioning to a gargantuan hedging saw idling nearby. As the president of the Western Pecan Growers Association, he’s in the middle of New Mexico’s battle to keep its pecan industry profitable.

“The industry in New Mexico is growing. We are ‘Western Pecans,’ so we represent California, Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas,” he said, adding that New Mexico is the largest producer of the four. “We have over 60,000 acres in production, and maybe more. Arizona is about 30,000 and West Texas I believe is pretty similar, and maybe ten thousand acres in California.”

Strong ranking

The New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s latest figures — from the year 2020 — show that the state’s pecan production totaled more than 78 million pounds, which was second behind only Georgia, which registered about 145 million pounds. For 2020, New Mexico accounted for 25.8% of the nation’s pecan production. Georgia produced nearly half, 48.3%, of the nation’s pecan production in 2020.

Kernels and shells separated by an optical sorter at the AMVT LLC booth in the main exhibition hall March 8 at the Western Pecan Growers Conference. (Josh Bachman/New Mexico State University)

Georgia historically ranks first in the nation in pecan production, with the exception of 2018 and 2019 when New Mexico topped the national list. In 2020, Georgia was again first, and appears to edge out New Mexico in 2021 production, but those figures are still being tabulated.

Also for 2020, New Mexico’s total agricultural production was $3 billion, which was 5% lower than 2019, according to the 2020 New Mexico Agricultural Statistics report.

“New Mexico chile and pecan production ranked in the top two spots in the nation in 2020,” the report said.

Other top producers in the state were onions which ranked fifth in the nation, New Mexico milk production was ranked ninth, and cattle and calves were ranked 14th in the United States.

Major challenges

Pecan trees on the New Mexico State University campus. (Courtesy of NMSU)

With New Mexico in a pitched battle with the state of Georgia to claim the top spot as the nation’s most productive pecan-selling state, Arnold sees a number of issues that are at play in keeping New Mexico competitive.

Keeping the pecan weevil — a destructive insect that bores holes into pecans — away from pecan fields always ranks high, he said, but the bigger challenges are threefold: dealing with the drought, worker shortages and opening new pecan markets.

“We are trying to make sure that we have the ability to either take water from the river, if it is there, and if it’s not there, then we need to supplement it with groundwater. So we need to make sure that we have those rights in place so that we can grow our crops,” he said, adding that a court case between Texas and New Mexico is addressing that.

The ongoing dispute originated in a 2011 federal lawsuit filed by New Mexico, which alleged that the federal government gave Texas more water than it did New Mexico. Then, Texas in 2014 filed a lawsuit in the US Supreme Court against New Mexico. In that filing, Texas alleged that New Mexico was taking more water than legally allowed by diverting the river’s water flow, and by pumping out groundwater.

New markets, tech advancements

Arnold said that China and India, both with large vegetarian populations, would be ideal markets to break into.

“We are always looking to get into new, emerging markets. China was a huge market. We have been in China for maybe 20 years now, and that really took off for us, but then we had the tariff war with Trump being in office. There was a lot of stuff that went on with China and they basically stopped taking pecans from us and they found them from other places in the world,” he said.

Gaining the upper hand globally is a shared goal of the vendors who were at the conference, and many of them say that technology is the strongest tool to do that.

Sean Olivari, a general manager for a farming technology company named Aerobotics, pulled up a series of images on a large computer screen at the conference.

“This helps identify problem areas in the field where the irrigation is not efficient,” he said, pointing at the images of a field that were scanned with his company’s specialized drones. “You can see where it is dark blue, the soil is nice and cool, those are ideal conditions. But on this side, the temperature is way too hot. The trees start shutting down,” he said. “This can help a pecan grower to identify problem areas and fine-tune his irrigation to be more efficient.”

For Jamie Viramontes, who is from a farming family in Deming, the success of the pecan industry means more than profitable seasons. Agriculture is a part of New Mexico’s identity, she said, and is linked to many farming families throughout the state whose work on the fields have helped sustain for generations the economy of New Mexico, and have helped define its culture.

As a customer success manager for Conservis, a company that provides comprehensive farm management software, she said she finds pride in arming farming families with the latest technology to keep their operations competitive.

“I love that I get to work with farmers everyday,” she said from her presentation booth.

“We all need farmers, the farming way of life,” she said. “Farmers feed the world and people sometimes take that for granted. Agriculture is necessary. I don’t think it gets the value that it deserves. It is our heritage.”

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