Despite the loss of fruiting wood from the sub-zero temperatures that descended into New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley in February, Bill Halsell’s pecan trees were, for the most part, in excellent shape in early August.
“There’s a lot of foliage, with good-looking sassy, green leaves,” he says. “The trees are as healthy as can be, and when I look into some of the trees, I see a lot of nuts. But, in other trees where the fruit wood was frozen, there are very few nuts. We definitely got some pretty good damage from the freeze, but I don’t know how much wood it really took out. Overall, the trees look good right now.”
The 500 acres of producing trees are spread over the three farms of Halsell Farms, Inc., near Rincon, N.M. Mostly Western Schleys, with a few Wichitas, they range in age from about 25 years to the first ones Halsell planted 40 years ago.
This year, he planted an additional 150 acres of trees on a newly-purchased piece of ground next to his main farm, using a diagonal pattern with a 35 x 35-foot spacing.
The trees in his existing orchards were planted 30 feet apart between rows, with a 30-foot spacing within the rows. When that proved too crowded, limiting production, he ended up removing every other tree in the rows, resulting in a 30 x 60-foot spacing. Spacing in his new orchards, he says, should allow him to maintain production longer before shading begins to hurt yields.
He figures the winter freeze reduced nut set in his orchards to 80 percent of normal. As a result, he’s lowered his original yield estimate for this year of 2,500 pounds per acre to 2,000 pounds.
Last year, his expectations were in the other direction. Since 2010 was an off year, he expected production to be lower, or at least no higher, than in 2009. Instead, last year’s crop was 20 percent bigger than the previous year.
“I’m not sure what will happen this year,” he says. “It may be an on year for some people in this area and an off year for others.”
Halsell suspects that, in his case, the cycle is affected by the location of the orchards on his main farm — close to hills and the coldest part of the farm.
“Sometimes, the cycle gets disprupted and that area may be in on year, while the orchards on my other farms in the area are in an off year. It all averages out.”
His annual allocation of water from the Elephant Butte Irrigation District was squeezed to just 4 acre inches in June due to scant snowfall in the areas of New Mexico and southern Colorado which are sources of districts supplies. This has forced Halsell to rely heavily on his wells for water this season.
It takes about 40 percent longer to pump water from the ground for one irrigation than to get it from a canal, he says. That means increased costs to manage the water and for diesel fuel to power the engines that run the pumps. Plus, water from the wells is saltier.
Up until mid-July neither the pecan nut casebearer nor the yellow aphid had posed much of a problem. As usual, he treated his orchards with a soil-applied systemic insecticide in early June to control yellow aphids.
“High temperatures in June, our hottest month of the year, usually take care of any problems,” Halsell says. “But this year, as the effects of the insecticide started to wear off, we had a pretty good infestation of yellow aphids in the last two weeks of July and had to spray with a foliar insecticide.”
The black aphid usually shows up in his orchards in August and, if needed, he’ll treat them with the same foliar insecticide.
Halsell has his fingers crossed over the prospect for a continued strong pecan market, but he’s uneasy that just one country, China, is the big driver of the market. A loss of that business could be a severe blow to American growers, he says.
“There’s been a lot of new pecan trees planted recently in the U. S.,” he says. “It will take seven or eight years before they come into production — that’s how much time we have to grow our markets in other areas.
“People are saying that prices for this year’s crop will be as good as last year,” Halsell says. “I’m not that optimistic; I’ll wait and see. I’ve been dragged around enough over the years to not get all pumped at this point in the season. We’re all feeling good about prices now — but, it could all be gone tomorrow.”