Writer: Justin Bannister, 575-646-5981, firstname.lastname@example.org
The official numbers are not released until July, but with an estimated 46 million pounds of pecans produced in 2006, growers in New Mexico are already claiming the title of America's number one pecan producer.
"It shows New Mexico can be very competitive in this industry. It shows we have come into our own," said Richard Heerema, an extension specialist at New Mexico State University who specializes in pecans.
Heerema said of the 15 pecan producing states, New Mexico is typically ranked in the top three, with Georgia traditionally the dominant pecan producer.
"Southern New Mexico is an ideal place to produce pecans. It's all about light and humidity," said Heerema. "Because they get more rain in Georgia, growers there have to worry about a lot more diseases and pests. Those things aren't a problem here."
Heerema explained Southern New Mexico's intense sunlight helps trees produce more pecans. He said growers in New Mexico are also more likely to irrigate and prune their trees, protecting them from water stress and allowing the entire tree to produce nuts. For years, New Mexico pecan trees have been recognized as the most productive, producing more pecans per acre than other trees.
Working against Georgia's pecan industry is urbanization, the growth of cities and towns.
"Land value in Georgia is increasing rapidly," said Heerema. "That puts pressure on any kind of land with trees. It's more profitable for growers to sell their land to developers."
On the other hand, pecan acreage in the Mesilla Valley has grown more than 500 percent since the 1970s.
"Many crops in New Mexico aren't as profitable as they used to be, so growers are switching to pecans. They're just more profitable for farmers," said Heerema.
New Mexico pecans routinely fetch a much higher price than any other pecans grown in the U.S. Heerema said the overall price per pound of pecans is steadily climbing because worldwide demand for nuts continues to climb. He said an increased awareness of the nutritional benefits of nuts has helped drive demand.
John Mexal, assistant department head of Plant and Environmental Sciences at NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics, said while he believes there will be a back-and-forth battle for the title of number one pecan producer over the next few years, he also believes New Mexico will eventually hold and retain the pecan production crown.
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