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Cracking a tough nut – selling more pecans

New Mexico pecan growers produce at least 80 million pounds of in-shell pecans a year, making the state a top source of pecans nationwide. (Tiffany Acosta/NMSU)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

MESILLA VALLEY – New Mexico pecans make an appearance during the holiday season in delectable desserts including pies, cookies and pralines – but a new nationwide marketing campaign is promoting pecans’ nutritional value as well.

“The biggest thing is we’re starting to tell our story,” said Phillip Arnold, president of the New Mexico Pecan Growers Association.

The “original supernut” campaign is an effort to encourage Americans to eat more pecans by focusing on the heart-healthy nutrients, protein and fiber packed into each pecan as well as the heritage of the only tree nut native to America.

Wild pecans date back well before the first Thanksgiving.

“They were actually harvested by Indian tribes years and years ago as a source of food during the winter months,” Arnold said.

They are now a major crop for New Mexico, which expects to harvest more than 80 million pounds of pecans this year. New Mexico has about 51,600 acres of trees, which produce more pounds per acre than any other state.

Arnold describes southern New Mexico as the “epicenter” of pecan production in the western United States. Georgia, usually the top producer, has more acres but is still struggling to recover after Hurricane Michael downed pecan trees last year, drastically cutting the harvest.

Pecan growers nationwide have had to weather the impact of tariffs resulting from a trade war with China, a major export market.

“With this tariff, (exports) went from 26% to just under 6% last year, so it’s definitely had an effect on things,” Arnold said. China is buying more pecans from Mexico instead of the U.S.

Pecans are prized in China, where they’re known as the “long life nut” because of their elongated shape and health benefits.

The new “original supernut” campaign aims to encourage more Americans to eat pecans by changing perceptions about a nut most associate with sugary, sticky desserts and pralines.

The American Pecan Council website includes healthy recipes for entrees such as pecan chicken meatballs and side dishes, including charred sesame pecan green beans, roasted veggie potato mash with toasted pecans and a pecan and squash flatbread with dried cherries that could be an appetizer or entree. There’s a stuffing recipe featuring pecans as well.

“This year is a really good year, terrific pecans, nice and meaty pecans, just what the consumer is looking for,” said Paul Koenig, a farmer in the Mesquite area.

Koenig is among those who believe the promotional campaign will boost sales by introducing more Americans to pecans.

“I’m sure it will. It just takes a while to get all these people over to eating and tasting them and knowing it’s a good crop,” Koenig said.

Americans are familiar with promotional campaigns for agricultural products with catchy phrases like “Got milk?,” “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner,” and “Pork, the other white meat.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the federal marketing order for pecans that allowed the industry to collect money from growers for marketing and research. The American Pecan Council, overseeing the project, is made up of 17 growers and shellers nominated by the industry and appointed by the USDA.

“You probably won’t see a Super Bowl ad soon because of our budget,” said Arnold, a member of the council.

Pecan farmers don’t have as much money as other major industries to promote their product. But Arnold said along with some radio and television ads, they’re amplifying their “original supernut” message with social media by providing information to nutrition experts and other influencers.

A recipe from @EatKetoWithMe describes double chocolate cookies with pecans as a great low-carb sweet treat. Another health and fitness aficionado recommends oven-roasted pecans as “the perfect snack to keep in your car or gym bag.”

New Mexico pecan growers expect a record crop this year, and despite the decline in exports to China, they are hopeful about the future.

“Domestic demand has continued to increase, as well as foreign demand from European countries, and we are optimistic for a bright future,” said Gregg Daviet, farm manager for Dixie Ranch in the Mesilla Valley.

Daviet’s simple message this holiday season: “Please eat all the pecans you want; we’ll make more.”