With night-time temperatures occasionally dropping below freezing in the Mesilla Valley, area pecan producers are looking toward harvest time. They are also looking forward to a good per-pound price for their product again this year, although yields are likely to be smaller due to the drought.

Some of the oldest pecan trees in the valley can be found on the campus of New Mexico State University, according to Richard Heerema, NMSU Extension pecan specialist. Research on pecan varieties has been conducted at the university for nearly a century.

Earlier this month, Heerema was walking through the old pecan orchard at the university's Fabian Garcia Science Center west of the Las Cruces campus, noting the differences among the trees and sampling the occasional nut. The orchard covers approximately four acres on the west side of the research center. He and many of his fellow faculty members believe this orchard's first pecan trees were planted by the legendary Fabian Garcia, the first director of the university's Agricultural Experiment Station, who is best known today for his pioneering work in chile pepper development.

Heerema says that based on trunk girth, some of the orchard's approximately 120 pecan trees certainly appear old enough to have been part of that original planting.

In the 1925 Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 145, "Preliminary Pecan Experiments," Garcia and co-author A.B. Fite refer back to the March 1916 planting of pecan trees "on the Horticultural Farm where an old peach orchard had been removed." Two or three trees were planted of 17 different varieties obtained from Texas and Indiana, with the idea of testing their adaptability to New Mexico growing conditions.

This "College Experimental orchard," as they termed it, was populated with the following varieties: "Stuart, Money-maker, Schley, Colorado, Pabst, Frotscher, San Saba, Van Deman, Venus, Texas Prolific (Sovereign), Success, Indiana, Busseron, Niblack, Green River, Warrick, and Kentucky."

A few of the oldest-looking trees in the orchard today still have rusting metal tags identifying them as belonging to some of those varieties: ROW 7 TREE 6, KENTUCKY; ROW 1 TREE 4, STUART; ROW 4 TREE 2, VAN DEMAN.

It is unlikely that all of the varieties mentioned by Garcia and Fite are currently represented in this orchard. There are also whole rows of smaller trees that clearly could not have been part of the original experimental orchard set.

"There's a good deal of variation from tree to tree in this block," says Heerema, standing under one of the older trees. "There's a lot of variation in bark texture, for instance. This one has a very shaggy-textured bark, whereas others have a much smoother bark. You'll also see a good deal of variation in the shape of the pecan nuts, the ripening date, the flavor, the growth pattern or the structure of the tree, a lot of variation in this orchard block."