While it may be an “off” year for California pistachios, in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the crew at Eagle Ranch and Heart of the Desert Pistachios in Alamogordo is expecting a bumper crop for 2021.
With harvest of some 14,000 trees on over 100 acres just wrapping up, early yield has been exceptional.
“Early on, we’re seeing probably the best crop we’ve ever had,” said owner George Schweers. “We had a good winter which we haven’t had for the last couple of years, so the trees went dormant and got some rest. Weather was OK during pollination and the good Lord looked after us.”
Initial bins were filling between 750-800 pounds collected from seven or eight trees where previous harvests took between 15-20 trees to gather that same weight.
As the acknowledged first and largest-producing pistachio grove in the state, Schweers says his own harvest has kept him so busy he doesn’t know if other area growers are also having a good year. “I don’t go around asking what they’re getting. That’s their business,” he noted. “There’s not that many growers in the county, maybe 400 acres total, and we represent a big chunk of that.”
Schweers and wife Marianne, both Midwesterners from Nebraska farm country, wanted to return to crop production when George finished his military duty. They looked for something that would grow well in desert conditions and ended up purchasing 400 scrawny two-year-old nut trees on ten acres. That was half a century ago.
At age 85, Schweers still spends time in his orchard although he admits to having a good farm supervisor who implements major decisions made by the boss. The early days are still vivid memories. “We had a tractor and disc and a vegetable garden and that was it. The trees were in sad shape, ravaged by rabbits, with nothing but natural desert around it all. We drove in from town on evenings and weekends and did what needed to be done.”
Apparently successfully if you chart the growth curve. “It was our goal to get back into agriculture, not to build an empire, but a profitable family business,” adds Marianne. “We both knew how things worked and we’ve been a good team on this long-term commitment. We did buy another company, a popcorn company, to expand into other products that could provide a revenue stream that wasn’t weather dependent.”
Chilling a challenge
Weather has been a bit iffy of late, something she blames on climate change. “We’ve not gotten the chilling we need and production began to drop. Who knows where this climate change thing will end up? We wanted to prepare so that if our ag crops, pistachios and wine grapes (24,000 vines), could no longer give us the needed revenue stream, we could develop our popcorn business.”
The Schweers do everything needed to produce pistachio product, from growing to processing, hulling, packaging, and marketing. Working with Atlantic root stock, he says: “Everything is grafted with Kerman,” and admits he’s been so busy he hasn’t gotten around to experimenting with other varieties, “although I know they’re out there and are very effective.”
The New Mexico orchards are irrigated by both drip and sprinkler, fed by wells. “Last year we added three new ones at 600 feet and we’ve got one in the vineyard that wants to go even deeper.”
Having reached octogenarian status, Schweers says he doesn’t have plans to expand further. “I don’t think it would be wise for me to put any additional load on our people, so I’ve kind of held off on expansion plans.”