It comes as little surprise that New Mexico's crop production numbers for 2014 are tied closely to ongoing problems associated with the drought. USDA's January annual crop report indicates irrigated crops fared well last year while dryland crops slipped behind previous year's numbers.
While a continued shortage of rainfall forced wheat production down, sorghum, hay and cotton production continued to show strength both as a preferred crop by farmers, especially in the southeastern region of the state, and as a crop that remained high in demand.
New Mexico State University Extension reports southeastern New Mexico's large herds of dairy cattle continue to provide a steady demand for hay and grain each year, making hay, especially high-quality alfalfa, along with sorghum and other grains, profitable. While last year's wheat production was largely a dryland crop, grain and hay were generally grown in irrigated fields.
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The USDA annual report notes the drop in the state's wheat production was significantly down from 2013, about a 33 percent decline overall. Peanut production was also down significantly, about 29 percent off 2013 numbers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, cotton, sorghum and hay crop production rose slightly in 2014 over the previous year's crop.
In Roosevelt County, peanut production represented the greatest loss in crop production with planted acres falling considerably since 2013. Roosevelt County Extension agent Patrick Kircher says the county was once a leader in production of high-quality Valencia peanuts, but since the Sunland Peanuts processing plant closed in 2012, peanut production has dropped dramatically as more and more growers are turning to other crops as an alternative.
Valencia peanuts are difficult to grow and without a local market, producers have been forced to turn to alternative crops.
Sunland had been a driving force for peanut growers in Eastern New Mexico as well as for growers across the border in the Texas Panhandle. The plant was the largest producer of organic peanut butter in the nation when it closed in the fall of 2012 after U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors uncovered numerous violations, following a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened as many as 42 people in 20 states.
When the facility was shuttered, high-grade Valencia peanut growers were left holding the bag because of unpaid deliveries in its final days, as were the plant's major creditors. After months of negotiations and heated discussions in a U.S. Bankruptcy court, the plant was finally closed and has not reopened. As a result, once-popular peanut production in the area may never recover.
Cotton gives way to sorghum
While cotton remains a popular crop for New Mexico producers, Extension specialists expect more acres of sorghum this year. Cotton prices have fallen since last year and sorghum is more drought tolerant. While the serious outbreak of sugarcane aphids experienced in coastal areas of Texas and other southern states has not, so far, reached New Mexico's sorghum fields in large numbers, county agents are warning producers to prepare for a potential outbreak.
Aphid populations increased in parts of the Texas High Plains last year and are expected to continue to spread again when warmer weather arrives.
Extension officials say while good rains fell at the end of the growing season last year and well into the early winter months bringing some relief to dry soil conditions across large areas of the state, spring rains will be needed to sustain a good crop through the summer months. While a spring snowmelt will add some volume to reservoirs, irrigation allotments are still expected to be short again this year, a trend that has hampered growers for the last four consecutive years.
National weather forecasters are providing some hope for additional rain in the weeks ahead as the spring season approaches, but they warn a weak El Niño system in the Pacific could disappear before summer sets in.