Growing green: New Mexico pistachio industry grows, albeit slower than Arizona's

Growing green: New Mexico pistachio industry grows, albeit slower than Arizona’s


Tim McGinn’s PistachioLand orchard near Alamogordo features this 30-foot-tall pistachio nut. Pistachios were named “nut of the year” for 2023, and industry experts expect the industry to continue its rapid growth. (Courtesy of Tim McGinn)

Pistachio farmers say New Mexican pistachios grow a little bit sweeter.

“It’s like wine,” said Tim McGinn, an Alamogordo pistachio farmer and owner of PistachioLand’s giant pistachio statue. “There’s a microclimate in the Tularosa Basin that’s different … this is sort of a high desert as compared to the Central Valley in California, so things taste different.”

The high desert landscape of the basin is comparable to conditions in Iran, which is known for its export of pistachios. New Mexico is one of just three U.S. states that grow the green nut.

And the industry is growing. In 2020, the total economic impact from pistachio farms in the state totaled $4.5 million. But a 2023 study from the American Pistachio Growers trade association released Monday found that in 2022, that number had jumped more than 30% higher, to $5.9 million.

“Growers are spending more to produce pistachios,” said Dennis Tootelian, professor emeritus of marketing at California State University, Sacramento. Tootelian conducted the economic impact study. “What that means for the state of New Mexico is, the more growers spend, the greater the economic value that they generate for the state.”

McGinn’s father, Thomas McGinn, started growing pistachios in the late 1970s. Their farm originally had 3,000 trees — now, PistachioLand boasts four times that number.

But New Mexico’s pistachio industry is growing slower than its counterpart in neighboring Arizona, which almost doubled its total economic impact between 2020 and 2022, skyrocketing from $91.8 million to $171.1 million.

There are a couple of reasons why.

The branch of a pistachio tree in the California Central Valley. (Courtesy of Brian Feulner/ American Pistachio Growers)

Where Arizona’s pistachio footprint grew thousands of acres over the past few years, New Mexico’s pistachio acreage has remained around 600 acres.

George and Marianne Schweers have been growing pistachios in the Tularosa basin since 1974. In the past 49 years, the couple has grown Eagle Ranch from 20 acres to 105. But Marianne Schweers said that due to water rights, it’s become more difficult to register wells for agriculture use.

“We actually had a nursery at the beginning, and our vision was that all we could just see pistachio trees from one end of Tularosa to the other,” Schweers said. “But at that time, you could not drill a well for agricultural purposes. So we closed the nursery down.”

Despite owning additional acreage, McGinn said the land can’t be converted into pistachio groves. But he supports New Mexico’s “conservative” water use and still sees room for growth in his groves — although not necessarily in acreage.

“I own more land, but I can’t get water for it,” McGinn said. “It’s a closed basin, so for me … I have a lot of younger trees that are not at full production. So I’ll grow in that sense.”

Pecans and pistachios past

In New Mexico, pistachios have a much shorter history than the pecan; according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, in 2015, the state produced approximately a third of the nation’s pecans.

That can be a good thing for some pistachio farmers. Adam Kusmak, who opened pistachio farm Tularosa Pistachio Groves with his father and two brothers in 1990, said the pecan’s popularity pushed the family away from the pecan, and toward the pistachio.

“We moved to Las Cruces first,” Kusmak said. “There was a lot of pecan orchards already fully established — it was a big pecan area. So we wanted to do something a little different.”

McGinn said the industry can be hard to break into — pistachio trees take seven years to grow, and between 15 and 20 years to reach peak production. Those first seven years are “very expensive,” requiring a large upfront infrastructure investment with no returns.

And the state has no large, commercial processing plant for hulling and drying the nuts. The Schweers and McGinn have their own processing plants, but without a larger facility, Matoian said, it’s difficult for new growers to take root.

“There’s going to need to be a much bigger facility, if there’s going to be many more growers,” Matoian said.

Kusmak has to transport his pecans to Arizona to be processed — a sometimes difficult feat. Food safety rules require the nuts to be processed within 24 hours, Kusmak said. As a primarily family-operated business, it’s difficult to make the four-hour drive to the processing plant.

“There’s just not enough hours in the day,” Kusmak said.

But Kusmak is hoping to change that. He’s planning to build a commercial scale processing plant in the near future, not only to process his own pistachios, but to service the rest of the state as well.

“It’ll allow the state to diversify with the pecans, we can add pistachios to it,” Kusmak said. “I think overall, it’s a benefit for the state.”

Growing online

Over the past decades, the industry has changed in a number of ways. Kusmak said the advent of the internet has helped improve pistachio farming in the state.

When the Schweers moved to New Mexico, they decided to grow pistachios based on reading an encyclopedia to find desert crops. But, in the Land of Enchantment, the couple was “isolated from the industry,” in California.

California is still the king of pistachio production between the three states, bringing in an estimated $6.4 billion in total economic output among the 446,000 acres in the state. The Schweers would visit California to learn about new farming practices and equipment.

“California was our mecca,” Schweers said. “We go out there every year, take a look at all the equipment they had … and a lot of it we would come back and copy.”

But now, New Mexican pistachio farmers are able to connect easily with California growers via the internet. Kusmak says now, he generally speaks with two California farmers each week to share advice.

And, he said, the internet has been key to increasing pistachio sales.

“For people like us, who live in a small town like Tularosa … the internet’s very powerful,” Kusmak said.

This year is expected to be a big year for the pistachio. Baum & Whiteman, a food and restaurant consulting firm based in Brooklyn, named the pistachio as the “Nut of the Year” this year. The choice reflects a change in the perception of the pistachio, industry members said, as consumers learn about the health benefits of the protein-packed nut.

“(The pistachio) used to be primarily a holiday or special occasion-type product,” Kusmak said. “Now, it’s getting to be more and more a part of people’s daily diet.”


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