Inside the Border Pecan Boom

FNS Special Feature

Editor’s Note: The following story is another installment in Frontera NorteSur’s Centennial series that examines the development of the rural New Mexico borderlands since statehood in 1912. Support for this story was provided by the McCune Charitable Foundation and the New Mexico Humanities Council.

Around the bend from a southern New Mexico horse ranch where bison stand sentry, a visitor might think he has stumbled onto the set of a sci-fi flick in production. Donning a respirator mask that presses his goggled eyes as he zooms in and out of gnarled trees, Todd Harper commandeers a noisy contraption. Perhaps resembling a “moon rover,” the harvesting machine’s mechanical arms grab hold of a thick tree trunk and furiously shake the prey.

Watching intently, mother Sally Harper admits she’s been “bopped” by falling branches more than a few times in her career, which is actually not cranking out B-grade Hollywood fantasies. After all, the Harpers, are serious pecan growers and early winter is harvest time in the Mesilla Valley where they live just north of the US-Mexico border.

Pecans changed Sally Harper’s life 23 years ago when she and her late husband, an agricultural economist at nearby New Mexico State University, acquired a small pecan orchard. “We needed a change of lifestyle and discovered it was more work than we expected,” Harper recalls.

A no-nonsense businesswoman whose small stature conceals a reservoir of energy, Harper is a certified organic grower who produces high-quality pecans in orchards scattered on 31 acres. Harper and son also contract out their fleet of harvest machinery and small crew of workers to other growers.

Dashing around pecan-canopied back roads in a big pick-up, Harper oversees a ten-man mobile work force while finding time to inspect harvested nuts and deliver them to a cleaning plant. In between runs, she pours through crates for sticks, rocks, golf balls, baseballs and even the occasional dead chicken that might get sucked up along with nuts by the harvesting machines that scour and scoop the ground. Then there are the “stick-nuts,” pecans which are stuck to the shell and sent to Mexico for painstaking hand shelling, Harper must watch out for. “You have to be pretty well organized to be efficient,” Harper insists, “because if you aren’t efficient you aren’t going to make any money.”

To see the harvest through completion, Harper and fellow farmers must first repel the onslaught of uninvited nut-craving guests-hungry skunks, snacking dogs, hoarding ground squirrels and, in the opinion of Harper, the terror of the pecan orchard: marauding flocks of crows which descend on the trees in such numbers they darken the light inside Harper’s home as they swoop in for the feast, according to the Mesilla Valley grower.

Now in charge of the harvesting equipment, 30-year-old Todd Harper stands out in a profession which attracts few youths these days. College-educated, Harper nonetheless says he likes working on the farm. Besides the outdoors, the younger Harper cites the varied tasks of pecan growing-prepping the machinery, pruning the trees, mowing the ground and harvesting the nuts, among other chores. Will he continue in the farming business?

“I enjoy farming, but you know with the economy and development pressures and water, time will tell,” he ventures. “But I thoroughly enjoy it.”

The Harpers are among border-area pecan producers who’ve carved out an important niche in national and international markets. Locally, pecan growing got a huge boost in the early 1930s when Dean Stahmann traipsed across the state line from neighboring El Paso County, Texas, and began planting 4,000 acres of trees.

Nowadays, more than 37,000 acres of pecans cover the New Mexican landscape, mostly in southern New Mexico, says James Ditmore, international trade specialist for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA). Ditmore’s up-to-date numbers are more than 4,000 acres higher than the 2002 agricultural census which counted nearly 33,000 acres of pecans statewide.

Projected by NMDA to reach 76 million pounds, this year’s harvest will be a biennial bumper crop. New Mexico maintains its number two status for national pecan production, only behind Georgia, Ditmore says. Every year, the crop brings in about $180 million for the state economy, he adds. That’s far more than the farm gate value of New Mexico’s vaunted green chile, which fetched $42.3 million in 2008.

Ditmore attributes the pecan boom to higher commodity prices and vastly expanded international exports, especially to China. Soaring from 500,000 pounds a few years ago to 15 million last year, fully one-third of New Mexico’s pecan crop was shipped to China in 2009, according to Ditmore.

“It’s considered an exotic nut. It’s consumed during Chinese New Year,” Ditmore says. “It’s considered very lucky and a prosperous New Year.” Other emerging markets include India, Turkey and the Middle East. “It’s something new for them, like the macadamia nut was for us- a similar process,” he adds.

Barely tapped in New Mexico, the value-added potential of pecans is on display inside the Stahmann Farms Country Store located south of Las Cruces. On a busy holiday shopping day, visitors could select from an assortment of pecan candy, cinnamon spice pecans, 100% pure virgin pecan oil, chile roasted pecans, pecan cappuchino and, of course, the indomitable pecan pie.

Once entirely hand harvested, today’s pecan harvesting is highly mechanized. Though some hand crews still travel from Mexico to work smaller orchards, different, costly machines are employed in the various stages of the harvesting process-cleaning and sweeping the ground, shaking the trees and harvesting the nuts. From the orchard, pecans first go to a cleaning plant and then later to a shelling facility, both of which require some human labor.

In previous years, Harper insists she’s had trouble finding “competent workers” to fill out a 10-person crew that complements the machine-driven chores. Not this year. Usually running an ad for seasonal employees, Harper was instead deluged by applicants who showed up solely by word-of-mouth.

“I’ve had guys who want to bring their buddy. Everybody wants a job,” she says. “It’s a sign of the times.”

A landscaper by trade who needed the work, Frank Marquez of the nearby community of Anthony was connected to Harper through a friend and got a job machine-blowing nuts scattered alongside a dirt road back into the orchard. “I like it. It’s interesting. It’s fun,” Marquez says.

Even though the contemporary talk of regional economic development centers around space-age and high-tech endeavors, Marquez says agriculture remains “part of the economics” of the Mesilla Valley, and a source of seasonal or longer-term employment.

For Sally Harper, the new economics of pecans means she gets a premium price for organically-grown nuts produced for the retail market. Visually, organic and conventional orchards, the latter defined as operations which utilize chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, don’t look much different, Harper acknowledges, but adds that growing pecans without chemicals carries environmental benefits like keeping precious groundwater supplies free of contamination. Going organic, Harper insists, is “greener all the way around.”

Like countless generations of New Mexican farmers, modern pecan growers are dependent on the waters of the Rio Grande for their livelihoods. And as in the past, Harper and her neighbors warily watch the snow pack far to the north in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, where melting hillsides in the spring send vital run-off tumbling into the Rio Grande. Drier years translate not only into less available irrigation water from the river, but extra environmental and economic costs related to the pumping of groundwater.

In late 2009, an unusual “snow pack” in the Mesilla Valley left wet ground and delayed harvesting by the Harpers and many other growers for at least two weeks.

Aesthetically and environmentally, pecans have transformed the landscape of the Mesilla Valley during the last century. From the desert approaches to the patch of greenery that snakes along the Rio Grande, visitors quickly notice the forest-like enclaves which stand sandwiched between the awkwardly-merging cities of Las Cruces and El Paso. At times the urban and the rural come together, evidenced by the trendy home buyers who seek a house in the valley with its own little pecan orchard.

As a long-term investment that requires 12 or 15 years before young trees start producing, according to NMDA’s James Ditmore, pecans are not subject to shorter-term market fluctuations like cotton or even chile. Absent greater urban development and water usage pressures, pecans are likely to hold their ground in the Mesilla Valley. For now, the stately trees have maintained and expanded their presence as rural signposts.

“Visitors never forget when they’ve been to Las Cruces,” Sally Harper says. “They always talk about all the pecan orchards.”

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces,New Mexico


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