Pecan growers in New Mexico’s Pecos Valley are starting the 2012 crop year in much the same way they ended last season — short on water. But, with signs that the current La Niña is beginning to fade, the situation could improve within a few months.
“Weather forecasters are saying rainfall may return to normal levels by mid-June, says Woods Houghton, New Mexico State University agriculture agent for Eddy County. “That would be good.”
The continuing drought, along with cutbacks in the amount of water available for irrigation, are being blamed for the area’s variable crop last year.
Most of the county’s pecan orchards are flood irrigated. Trees typically respond to limited water supplies by producing fewer pecans; however, with fewer nuts to support, trees tend to use available water to fill nuts properly during the critical July and August period. In other cases, nut production didn’t drop as much.
Pecan trees require 3.65 acre-feet of water to produce a crop of nuts. Last year, at the start of the season, the local irrigation district allotted growers just 1.25 acre feet for the year. Late in the season, that was increased to 1.5 acre feet.
This year, the allocation has been cut to a total of just .8 acre feet, Houghton says. Fortunately most pecan growers have supplemental wells to make up the difference, but “we still need that little bit of extra water when the summer rains come.”
Despite water concerns, growers have responded to the strong demand for pecans and attractive prices by expanding acreage in the county. Last year, another 3,000 new trees were planted in the valley, Houghton says.
“Most of the trees in the valley are in good, average condition,” he says. “But judging by the amount of broken limbs this winter, probably 20 percent are showing signs of water stress from last year.”
Diseases don’t pose a risk to pecans in the Pecos Valley, and the only insect pest is the pecan nut casebearer. The first generation larvae cause most of the damage by feeding in the young nuts in late May and early June. One larva can often destroy an entire nut cluster. Second generation larvae do similar damage.
“I’m not sure how much growers will be concerned about controlling the pest this year,” Houghton says. “Last year, growers who didn’t treat harvested fewer nuts, but the nuts were of higher quality. So, they’ll be evaluating the situation this year before doing any treatment.”