LAS CRUCES, N.M. — New Mexico pecan crop prices set a new record-high in 2016, federal numbers released recently confirmed.

Some Dona Ana County farmers said the high prices were nice while they lasted, but may backfire on the industry if food producers switch to other kinds of nuts, causing negative ripple effects in the market that could affect growers this year.

On average, pecan farmers in the state received $2.96 per in-shell pound for last year’s crop, which was harvested in the winter of 2016-17, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The crop overall was valued at $213 million — the second highest among pecan-producing states. Only Georgia’s crop, at $272 million, was valued higher.

“Am I happy about a high prices? Of course I am,” said Las Cruces pecan farmer John Clayshulte. “I’m selling them (the pecans). But I also realize there’s such a thing as too high.”

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?

New Mexico’s previous record price high was in 2010, when an average of $2.83 per-pound was paid for the crop, according to USDA numbers.

Dona Ana County growers and experts said at the start of 2017 that they were seeing higher-than-ever prices in the New Mexico market, likely because of crop problems in other states, which shrinks the overall supply of nuts. The recent federal report, dated June 27, confirms that the prices were the highest to date.

A problem with extremely high prices is that companies buying pecans to incorporate into other products will simply stop buying them, Clayshulte said. That’s because their operations are not equipped to handle huge spikes in prices for the crop. And rather than buy pecans, they’ll switch to almonds or walnuts.

As for the pecan market from year to year, “I would prefer it steadier, if I had a preference,” he said.

Las Cruces-area farmer Jay Hill, who grows pecans, had similar thoughts, saying “too much of a good thing is sometimes bad when it comes to an extremely high market.”

“It was nice to see such high prices this year, but at the same time, we have to look at the long-term effect of the people that are doing the processing and are having to buy those pecans,” he said. “We want to make as much as we can; but we don’t want to do it to the detriment of those that are buying from us.”

Some farmers still have pecans in cold storage they didn’t sell during the 2016 season. Other farmers made deals to sell their crop, but the transactions never finalized because of the market shifting, Clayshulte said.

“I know for a fact there are just are some people who aren’t going to get paid,” he said.

Clayshulte said the prices already have dipped, a harbinger for 2017’s harvest.

“It’s not going to be much fun this coming year,” he said.

ONE-QUARTER OF U.S. PRODUCTION

Overall, New Mexico pecans accounted for more than a quarter of the total pecans produced in the United States in 2016, according to the federal report. It was the second-largest volume of nuts, again behind Georgia.

New Mexico totaled about 72 million pounds — a relatively high volume for what otherwise was expected to be a light production, or “off” year in Dona Ana County, one of the main growing-areas. Pecan trees tend to have a two-year pattern that yields a light crop one year and a heavy crop the next. The 2016 crop was only 1 million pounds less than 2015’s total production; often, the difference can be greater.

Experts have said trees on the eastern part of the state, because of weather, have flip-flopped with respect to orchards in Las Cruces, which has tended to reduce the production differences from year to year. Also, growers are improving their production practices to keep their trees from having wild swings in the amount of pecans they yield. Also, some trees planted over the past decade are maturing, adding to overall production.

THE CURRENT YEAR

Farmers said pecan trees — a high-water-use crop — for the most part are doing well in 2017, but it’s too early to say how the crop might fare at the end of the year. The harvest won’t take place until November or December.

Hill said his pecan orchard had problems with aphids, a type of insect, but “it’s since cleared up.”

“So far, the trees look happy and healthy,” he said.

Hail hasn’t been a problem for pecan farmers in Dona Ana County, growers said.

EBID Manager Gary Esslinger said the district allots to farmers 2 feet of Rio Grande water — also called surface water — per acre, a number higher than in recent years.

While pecans take a lot of water, “so does alfalfa and other crops,” Esslinger said.

“The combination of our ground water and our surface water is what our farmers are utilizing to grow their crops on,” he said. “Our aquifer isn’t cratering.”

Overall, the amount of land being farmed has shrunk over recent decades, as growers have shifted their water rights from one parcel to the next to make sure they have enough water, Esslinger said.

Hill said when pecan trees are flood-irrigated, they don’t use all of the water. A portion trickles into the groundwater table.

“It does utilize irrigation to help our groundwater,” he said.


Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News, http://www.lcsun-news.com