Despite continuing drought, the crop developing on 85 acres of trees grown by Marianne and George Schweers near Alamogordo, N.M., is progressing normally.

They own Eagle Ranch Pistachio Groves, the first and largest producing pistachio orchard in New Mexico, she notes. They and a handful of other growers in their home county of Otero and neighboring Doña Anna County to the west account for most of New Mexico’s pistachio industry.

Due to limited production from their wells, the Schweers have been challenged to fully meet their orchard’s need for water ever since they planted their first trees in 1972.

Their irrigation system includes small-radius spot spitters for their younger trees and a combination of spot spitters and micro-sprinklers for older trees. The capacity of their pumps range from about 150 gallons per minute to no more than about 250 gallons per minute.

“That’s not much,” says Marianne. “We just don’t have a good stream of water to pump from.”

At best, the trees receive no more than about three acre-feet of water annually. That’s much less than California growers typically can provide for their trees.

To stretch their water supply, the Schweers irrigate one section of a field at a time. “Once we start irrigating in the spring, our pumps keep running until harvest,” Marianne says.

The stature and production of their trees reflects the Schweers’ deficit irrigation practices. The trees are much smaller than those grown in Arizona and California where more water is available. The Schweers’ average yield of 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of nuts per acre is less than the typical Arizona and California pistachio orchard.

“We know we have to live with small trees because of deficit irrigation,” Marianne says. “But, the nuts we grow are of premium quality. While we don’t produce the colossal sizes of 18 to 20 nuts per ounce, almost all are in the 21 to 25 size range. Rarely do we have anything smaller.  The nuts are a very green, attractive color with almost no insect damage, and they have a lot of robust flavors.”

The Schweers hull, dry, roast, salt and package their pistachios and sell under their Heart of the Desert brand. Their marketing operation includes four retail outlets — three brick and mortar stores and an online site — as well as wholesale outlets. They’ll contract with other growers to buy additional nuts to meet demand, as needed.

The .80-inch of rain that fell on the orchards on the last day of June, was the first precipitation the trees had received since a 1-inch rain last October. Normally, this area gets most of its annual total of about 9 inches of precipitation from monsoon rains in July and August. This year’s monsoon season is predicted to be drier than usual, Marianne reports.

By expanding their orchards in various stages, planting some blocks in on-years and others in off-years, the Schweers have reduced the alternate-bearing tendency of their total operation. As a result, production remains fairly stable — except for the past two years. That’s when production was set back significantly by a sub-zero cold snap in February 2011.

“We didn’t lose any trees, but they seemed to have suffered a great deal of stress at the cellular level,” Marianne says. “Last year’s crop size was way down. This year, production looks to be back to normal. We’re feeling good about the crop.”

Their arid climate has prevented development of any disease problems. With few other farming operations nearby, their isolated location has helped minimize problems with their two main insect pests — stink bug and leaffooted plant bug.  The Schweers spot-treat when necessary. In the past, they’ve gone as long as three years between treatments.

The Schweers are watching their trees closely for navel orangeworm after finding damage from this pest for the first time four years ago. “It’s in the county,” Marianne says. “But, so far, it hasn’t caused the kinds of problems here that it has in California.”

 

This report is from Tree Nut Farm Press, a twice-monthly electronic newsletter published by Western Farm Press during the growing season. If you would like to receive Tree Nut Farm Press, see here for sign-up.

 

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