"On the edge of this parched southern New Mexico city, Phillip Arnold surveyed his rows of neatly pruned pecan trees with a satisfied smile..
“There was a time when I wondered what kind of mistake I had made,” said Mr. Arnold, who began helping his family grow pecans along the Rio Grande as a teenager in the 1960s. “But today, I feel real good about what we’re doing, and I feel good about the future.”
For months on end, the Southwest has been in the clutches of an unrelenting drought, one of the worst in New Mexico’s history. Earlier this month, the federal Agriculture Department declared six counties in the state as natural disaster areas because of the drought, including Doña Ana County, where Las Cruces sits.
While the lack of rainfall has left many ranchers and farmers reeling — and has earned the Rio Grande the nickname “Rio Sand”- pecan growers here have been able to thrive.
Thanks in part to the foresight of farmers who installed sophisticated irrigation systems and in part to the arid climate that helps ward off crop disease, the pecan business has been booming in the farmland around Las Cruces. The prosperous harvest this season has been all the more precious because pecan crops in other states — like Georgia — were ravaged by heavy rain and fungus, leading to high prices and shortages just before the Thanksgiving demand for pecan pie.
It is too soon to say whether the bounty in New Mexico will offset the paltry yields elsewhere. Mr. Arnold, who is president of the New Mexico Pecan Growers Association, said he expected the recent harvest to yield about 75 million pounds of pecans — one of the largest the state has seen--thanks to timely September rains and fully matured trees. Usually the state produces about 65 million pounds annually, second only to Georgia, which usually produces about 100 million pounds.
“It was one of the best years for us,” Mr. Arnold said, noting that he did not expect the crop to drop off much next year.
To be sure, even before the Rio Grande began running bone-dry through Las Cruces during the past few winters, New Mexico’s pecan growers had been forced to adapt to a desertlike climate to succeed.
Greg Daviet, a longtime Las Cruces pecan farmer, said that pecan growers here were more likely to have invested in irrigation infrastructure than other crop farmers, because pecan orchards were permanent fixtures and required long-term care.
“I would expect that we were a little more prepared to adjust to drought conditions,” Mr. Daviet said. He said he had seen the industry expand over the years in the surrounding Mesilla Valley, where a fertile supply of groundwater has also helped offset the lack of rain.
As is the case elsewhere, pecan farming in New Mexico is typically a family business. But nobody is quite sure how the trees, which are native to Texas, first got here.
Farming historians credit Fabian Garcia, a chile breeder who was head of New Mexico State University’s Agricultural Experiment Station, with planting some of the state’s first pecan trees in 1913. But commercial pecan farming did not really take off in New Mexico until more than a decade later.
As Mr. Arnold tells it, a Texas farmer who was hauling a load of pecans westward broke down one day, spilling his wares on the road. Mexican workers, who loved to snack on pecans and had a special affinity for the nuts from their use in northern Mexican cuisine, brought them to Deane Stahmann Sr., a local cotton farmer.
Mr. Stahmann eventually planted a pecan orchard south of Las Cruces. These days, he is widely thought of as the father of the New Mexico pecan industry, and for many years, the Stahmann family farm was the best-known pecan operation in the region.
As it turns out, the searing New Mexico sun suited pecan trees quite well, as long as they got enough water. Though farmers here must still use elaborate and expensive irrigation systems to manage water efficiently and ensure that their trees get enough water, their front-end investments are now, ostensibly, paying off.
“By and large, you have a far more stable, predictable climate here,” said Richard Heerema, pecan specialist at the Extension Plant Sciences department at New Mexico State University.
“In terms of the dollar value to the economy of the state, it is huge,” Mr. Heerema said. “It has become a really important crop for New Mexico’s agricultural economy.”
Indeed, in a place long famous for its chiles, pecans have now become one of the state’s most valuable commodities, generating well over $100 million annually. According to state data, pecans and hay have ranked among the top two most valuable crops in New Mexico for the past several years.
As New Mexico’s pecan market has swelled, production and prices around the country have also risen, farming experts said. Much of that success is largely due to new export markets in China, which has taken a keen interest in American pecans for use in snacks.
Though Georgia still holds bragging rights as the nation’s foremost and storied pecan producer, New Mexico’s ascent has not gone unnoticed by farmers in other states.
Between 1971 and 1980, New Mexico, California and Arizona made up only a sliver of the nation’s pecan market, according to federal crop statistics. But driven largely by increased production in the Mesilla Valley, those three states now account for nearly a third of all pecan production around the United States.
“The thing about New Mexico is, will they have enough water?” said Lenny Wells, an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia. “Aside from that, it’s the perfect climate for growing pecans. They don’t have the disease issues that we do.”
Still, farmers in New Mexico know well that as the drought drags on and the chronic water shortage across the West continues, they will be forced to make more adjustments. But once they start, farming families rarely leave the pecan business: Trees typically take at least seven years to produce enough nuts to turn a profit, and even rain is no substitute for patience.
Both Mr. Arnold and Mr. Daviet spoke of a mystical feeling when walking through the pecan orchards they had helped tend as young men, of seeing the trees they had once labored to plant in the New Mexico soil now fully grown.
“A pecan tree is something you plant and you look at 20 years later, and you say, ‘Look what I created,’ ” Mr. Daviet said. “They almost become members of the family, because they have been around forever. And in the end, they take care of me.”"