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Pecan farmers face big challenge with drought

A Pecan orchard in Southern New Mexico.
Noah Raess
A Pecan orchard in Southern New Mexico.

Pecan orchards are a common sight in Las Cruces. Dating back to the early 1900’s, the industry has flourished in southern New Mexico. Today, southern New Mexico is home to over 51,000 acres of pecan orchards. New Mexico State University pecan expert Dr. Richard Hereema says that while it may seem odd to grow in such a dry environment, New Mexico has many advantages for pecan growers that other areas do not have.

“The textures of these soils are really suitable for agriculture. But then the climate that’s the other part. It may seem counterintuitive but the low amount of rain means a couple things. More sunshine and the other thing that it means is that there is less moisture and humidity that can spread disease,” Hereema said.

Along with these advantages, a longer growing season is also helpful for this type of crop. Hereema says that once mature, pecans typically develop over the summer and are ready to harvest in the fall.

“For most of our varieties, they will start ripening in late October or during the month of November. And then often we will have a freeze in southern New Mexico in the month of November and that really marks the end of the growing season, Hereema said.

Pecans growing in the area.
Noah Raess
Pecans growing in the area.

This annual cycle is what pecan growers follow. One of these local growers is Buddy Achen who has been growing pecans since he was young.

“My dad had a small farm and as kids we helped him plant it and so that was the first farm. But after college there was not a farm to run so I left for two or three years working at the farm credit bank in Texas and then this farm came up for sale and we bought it and started farming ever since. That was in 1992,” Achen said.

In 2017, the pecan harvest in New Mexico was worth about $220 million making it the most valuable crop in the state at that time. While Las Cruces may be a good place to grow pecans, Achen says the work is far from easy.

“It’s long hours, its weekends, its holidays. It's very challenging in that respect. You are subject to mother nature. At any time, you could be hailed out, frozen out. There is just a lot of ways you cannot make money in a season.”

Pecan Water Usage in Las Cruces

Mother nature does not stop there. New Mexico has been in a drought for over 20 years making farming such a water intensive crop difficult, but also controversial. Farmers cannot get all of their water from surface water like the Rio Grande so many have turned to getting water from underground. The problem with that is that the water underground needs to be refilled by this. And when the Rio Grande runs dry nothing is refilling the groundwater.

“We receive a little bit of surface water but the last few years we have been in a drought so the surface water is minimal so we have to supplement that with groundwater which is extra expensive and it is a challenge right now and this drought is definitely a challenge,” Achen said.

As farmers of all crops have to rely on groundwater more, many experts are worried that those sources could run dry. Dr. Kurt Anderson is a Supervisor of the Dona Ana Soil and Water Conservation District. After years of watching water levels in the area, he has concerns on the future of agriculture in New Mexico.

“In the state, irrigated agriculture uses about 88% of all of our water. That’s surface water and ground water. Down here it's about the same. They use 100% of the river water. None of the river water goes to people who live along the river other than farmers,” Anderson said.

Anderson says this use of water is not sustainable with the current conditions.

“If you know the depletion rate and you at least have an idea of how much water is down there now, you can figure out when it is going to go dry. In 2067 give-or-take 5 or 6 years we are going to be out of water,” Anderson said.

Dry Rio Grande bed in Southern New Mexico.
Noah Raess
Dry Rio Grande bed in Southern New Mexico.

With these concerns some may point their finger at pecan farmers since pecan orchards require a lot of water. However, pecan farmers like Buddy Achen say that pinning the blame solely on the pecan farmers is far from fair.

“Well its incorrect thought pattern. As I just said groundwater is expensive and pecans do take a fair amount of water but we are very efficient with our water and we are very diligent with it. We laser our fields we push a large volume of water so we can water fast. Some people just water their yards so it just looks like a swimming pool and that's not efficient at all. Farmers have come a long way,” Achen said.

NMSU Extension Specialist Dr. Richard Hereema, explained the process of how his team measures the water usage of pecans.

“We measure the amount of water an orchard uses in inches that’s the depth of water that would cover land area and we say somewhere between a quarter and a third of an inch of water per day is what a mature orchard might require which is quite similar to a lot of other crops. It is not as different as people think it is.”

As the drought continues, many issues face the pecan industry and with groundwater levels decreasing with little help from surface water, pecan farmers are in a tough spot. With family farms on the line, many have much at stake.

Noah Raess, an NMSU Journalism major, has produced many feature news stories for television, radio, and the web that have covered housing, public safety, climate, school safety, and issues facing refugees.