An exceptionally warm fall season delayed New Mexico's commercial pecan crop harvest this year, but operations are finally getting underway after the first hard freezes of the season arrived in the pecan-rich Mesilla Valley in south-central New Mexico.
Pecan producers around Las Cruces in Doña Ana County, the epicenter of the state's lucrative nut industry, say annual harvest generally starts around Thanksgiving, but because of an exceptionally warm October and November, harvest equipment and seasonal workers have been idle as producers awaited the arrival of hard freezes needed to soften the fibrous hulls of pecan nuts.
In 2014, New Mexico produced 65 million pounds of pecans, accounting for 20 percent of the national crop. Commercial pecans are grown all over New Mexico with the largest concentration in Doña Ana County. The state is one of the top three pecan producing states in the nation.
According to New Mexico State University Extension officials, the average daily temperature for October and November this year was just less than 63 degrees in southern reaches of the state, the warmest fall on record. New Mexico State Climatologist Dave DuBois reported last week the average low for the same period was just less than 48 degrees, also the warmest on record.
WAITING FOR COLD
"We've been waiting on the freezes," said Las Cruces pecan grower and buyer Phil Arnold. "Unfortunately, we are at the whim of Mother Nature."
The first freezes of the season were logged the middle of November, and another occurred later in the month, but freezing temperatures lasted only a few hours each time. A sustained freeze is needed before pecan trees and the nut-heavy limbs can benefit the most.
DuBois and many area growers say the arrival of cold weather is running about three weeks behind the annual average. In spite of generally good nut health reported by many this year, the delay in harvesting operations could be problematic if a hard winter arrives early.
Tony Chavez has been working on pecan crews in the Mesilla Valley for the last several years and says tree-shaking has usually taken place by the first week in December. While shakers are either busy this week or are preparing to begin operations, harvest delay could spell trouble if heavy snows start falling before harvest can be completed.
"If we can't get the harvest out before heavy snows accumulate, we could be working in less than optimal conditions, and if nuts are on the ground when that happens, we could see some losses," he said.
That means the race is on to beat more extreme winter weather, and Chavez says that can make growers nervous.
GOOD GROWING SEASON
"It has been a pretty good growing season in spite of a few weather problems and some problems related to [pecan nut] casebearers and some instances of disease. But overall, if we can get the harvest out, it could be a good year for producers," he added.
Peanut acreage in New Mexico can be found in Lea and Roosevelt Counties as well, but about 75 percent of the crop is harvested in and around Las Cruces.
Bill Halsell of Halsell Farms in Rincon, New Mexico, farms about 550 acres of pecan with an additional 200 acres of young trees. He said in spite of dry periods in the summer months, increased irrigation allotments this year have helped bring his trees to a promising fall season. While the jury is still out in terms of the size of his expected pecan harvest, he is hoping for a better year than last when weather limited production.
Overall, New Mexico traditionally trails Georgia and often Texas in pecan production. But problems in both Georgia and Texas in recent years helped New Mexico become more competitive, bolstering production numbers over the last three years, which in turn pushed New Mexico to the top of pecan-production.
While Georgia is expected to regain the No.1 slot this year, problems in Texas may help New Mexico hang on to the No. 2 position, depending on a successful harvest.
DuBois blames the warmer weather this season on the lingering effects of a La Niña system, but he says categorically, climate change is the real culprit.
"Climate change is an underlying driver for providing a positive temperature trend over time and increases the probability of these kinds of extreme weather events," he explained.
But while pecan producers are anxious to see cooler temperatures earlier in the season, Hatch chile growers in the Mesilla Valley say warmer temperatures in the fall have actually helped them by allowing for a longer harvest season this year.
CHILE AND ONIONS
Chile grower Jerry Franzoy said the warm weather helped to extend chile harvest and says warmer weather was also been good for the state's onion crop. Onions, which are planted in the fall to over-winter for next year, will benefit from the extended growing season thanks to warmer temperatures, “so late freezes have been good” to his chile and onion operations.
And he wasn't the only one to benefit from the late freezes. New Mexico's alfalfa crops are considered some of best in the nation, and warmer weather has allowed many hay growers to get an extra cutting this year.
But as snow continued to fall in the New Mexico mountains last weekend, and as temperatures continued to fall across southern New Mexico, pecan growers remain hopeful they will be able to salvage the season in spite of the warm weather so far this fall season. And they hope annual snowpacks will improve the chance of a more robust irrigation season next year.
"Time will tell," says NMSU Extension officials.