It has not only been a strange year for New Mexico pecan growers, it has, so far, been a surprisingly good year.
Starting out the nut growing season under dire drought conditions, growers were able to use enough groundwater to keep their trees hydrated and complement the typical and alternating good year/bad year for growing pecans that is the norm for the industry.
Just as prospects for a good year were beginning to turn downward as the summer heat and searing New Mexico sun took their toll on pecan groves, moisture-laden tropical clouds began filtering into the state from both the Pacific and Gulf coasts, bringing with them abundant and plentiful rains.
As Rio Grande and Pecos River levels dropped and in some cases dried up completely by July, what was developing into another dreadful summer of severe drought suddenly turned into days and then weeks of abundant, saving and often heavy rain.
Subsequent weeks brought some hailstorm damage to nearby chili pepper fields as well and heavy winds that caused sporadic damage across areas of southern New Mexico. But in spite of a strange weather year, insect pressure from case bearers and overtaxed groundwater systems, New Mexico pecan growers in Doña Ana County began to believe salvation had arrived near the end of their growing season and disaster had narrowly been averted.
"It was finally looking like a difficult growing year was going to develop into a better than average growing season," said pecan grower Ty Achen.
While hope still runs high and there remains a great deal of optimism that pecan harvest will wrap up soon, early winter storms and especially December rains have caused some late season delays.
First heavy rains fell followed by snowfall, and now the return of more rain has muddied fields for an extended time and kept many farmers from moving equipment into pecan groves for any sustained period of time. Until equipment can regain access and shake the remaining nuts off the trees and collect them from the ground, final harvest remains "up in the air."
In some cases, farmers haven't even begun harvest because of prevailing wet conditions. Many fields throughout the famous New Mexico pecan-growing area around Las Cruces exhibit fields with high concentrations of clay, and growers say wet fields mean fields that simply cannot be accessed until substantial drying takes place.
One Doña Ana County nut farmer says the first harvest delay came when cooler weather was slow in arriving earlier this fall, and when the warm weather did change, it kicked off rain and snow showers that have prevented many growers from getting any equipment into their groves.
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Farther west near Deming, in southwestern New Mexico, growers received little or no rain this fall and many are wrapping up harvest operations. But in the heart of New Mexico pecan country around Las Cruces, some farmers report conditions have been wet for several weeks with not enough dry days in between to allow sustained access.
Dick Salopek, who grows pecans in northern parts of the county, has been able to access some areas since late November and has been moving equipment between to harvest as much as he can between rain showers. He is less than a week behind harvest schedule overall, about half way through, and says he expects to wrap up soon, depending, of course, on the weather.
While harvest delays have been problematic, growers are not overly concerned with delays. Harvesting problems in other areas of the nation, especially in Georgia, have kept in-shell pecan prices steady in recent weeks and that trend is expected to continue.
New Mexico's pecan harvest is expected to be the second largest among U.S. states again this year. As of last week, a USDA report placed the wholesale price of in-shell pecans near $2 a pound, a price that is expected to remain stable at least through mid-January. By then, say New Mexico growers, they should have contracts on their nuts and harvest should be nearing completion.
Last year New Mexico harvested about 61 million pounds of pecans statewide. USDA valued the 2012 crop at $162.9 million.