An early October freeze killed a large portion of New Mexico’s pecan crop, but the state remained the highest-producer in the U.S. as Georgia’s growers continue to recover from crop damage left in the wake of Hurricane Michael in 2018.
New Mexico produced about 96.6 million pounds for the 2019 crop, which was harvested in fall 2018 and early 2019, per data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That showed a growth of more than 5 million pounds, compared with the 2018 crop of 91.1 million pounds which was slightly less than 2017’s 92 million pounds of pecans.
Georgia was in second place with 69 million pounds for the 2019 crop, down from 2018’s total of 70 million which marked a devastating drop in production from 2017’s crop of 107 million pounds following damage from the hurricane.
Texas was third in the nation with 42.6 million pounds harvested, ahead of Arizona’s 2019 crop of 36.5 million.
But the Peach State had highest yielding acreage with 129,000 acres, records show, while New Mexico had just 46,000 acres producing pecans.
That was also less than Texas’ 112,000 yielding acres and Oklahoma’s 90,000 acres.
“In Georgia, many trees were still recovering from the effects of last year’s Hurricane Michael, including broken roots and loss of fruiting limbs,” read the report. “In addition, hot dry weather in late August through October negatively impacted the Georgia yield.”
Despite less than half the acreage, New Mexico also topped Georgia in value.
The Land of Enchantment’s 2019 pecan crop was valued at about $170 million compared with Georgia’s $130 million. No other state had a crop valued above $100 million in 2019.
Nationwide, 265 million pounds were produced for the 2019 crop, marking a 14 percent increase while bearing acreage was estimated at 396,000 acres, up 3 percent from the last year.
The total value of the U.S. pecan crop rose by 14 percent in the last year to $469 million.
Early freeze stymie’s 2020 crop
Woods Houghton, Eddy County agriculture extension agent with New Mexico State University said the 2020 crop would be much less due to an early fall freeze that left many trees producing less nuts and reducing the quality.
“We’ve got that early freeze from 2019. That’s going to hurt our yield a little bit,” Houghton said. “Last year’s crop was fantastic. It’s one of the best we’ve ever had.”
Houghton said New Mexico has always produced a better nut than Georgia, although Georgia’s yield is traditionally higher.
“Our out-of-shell yield has always been higher,” he said. “We’ve always outdone Georgia.”
But Phillip Arnold, president of the New Mexico Pecan Growers association and a pecan grower in the Mesilla Valley worried an early-October freeze, much sooner than normal, could lead the crop harvested at the end of 2019 and early 2020 much smaller than the previous.
He said he expected it to be as low at 75 million to 80 million pounds.
“We haven’t seen a freeze this early or cold since 1993,” he said. “Since we didn’t have the last few weeks to finish the crops, we had a lot of quality problems. Lower quality equates to less tonnage. It’s gonna be off.”
Long falls are what makes New Mexico’s pecans a stronger crop, Arnold said, giving them more time to grow in their shells.
The New Mexico pecan can generate about 50 to 55 percent nutmeat, compared to 40 percent from Georgia’s crop.
“One of the reasons we make really strong crops is because of the long falls,” Arnold said. “(The freeze) adversely affected this area this year. We’re a little worried.”
Solution is in the nut
Struggles with year’s freeze, which saw the temperature drop below 28 degrees in early October about four weeks earlier than normal, could be evaded with a new variety gaining popularity among Eddy County growers, Houghton said.
The Pawnee variety of pecan is ready to harvest earlier, dropping from the trees well before the fall and the threat of an early freeze
“Once you go below 28 degrees, it kills it. You’ve got what you got,” Houghton said. “The Pawnee is an earlier variety. It gets us out of the danger of freezes that we’ve experienced.”
But the quicker growing cycle means water is even more critical, Houghton said, as it is needed for a tighter time frame as the nut develops.
“You’ve got to make sure you have water at the right time,” he said. “It becomes more critical. They’re making that nut formation in two weeks rather than three weeks. The water stage is happening a lot faster.”
Arnold said water is a chief concern for the New Mexico pecan industry.
“Pecans are one of the highest-usage crops,” he said. “The big concern we have with the entire industry is water.”
Further bolstering New Mexico’s future crop, Houghton said pecan farmers are migrating to new locations to grow pecans, as far north as Albuquerque and De Baca County, as warmer temperatures are experienced.
About 300 to 500 new acres were planted each year for the past decade, Houghton said, and about that many are becoming viable this year. He said it usually take about five years for a pecan tree to become productive enough to turn a decent profit.
“They’re planting in places they’ve never planted before,” he said. “Farmers are adapting and moving in the northern parts of the state.”
And further north, shorter-season varieties will be needed for production to continue to grow, Arnold said, as such a migration brings more concerns with colder weather.
But if all goes well, he said one day New Mexico could produce up to 150 million pounds of the popular nut.
“We should continue to grow as long as we get adequate supplies of water,” Arnold said. “But you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature and whatever she gives you.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
©2020 the Carlsbad Current-Argus (Carlsbad, N.M.)
Visit the Carlsbad Current-Argus (Carlsbad, N.M.) at www.currentargus.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.