Drought creates uncertainty for pecan growers in El Paso region

TORNILLO, Texas – Shannon Ivey grew up alongside the family farm’s pecan orchards.

Now 41, the fourth-generation pecan farmer recently walked in the shade of nearly 50-year-old trees planted in the 1970s. Crawling with quails, songbirds and ‘pesky squirrels Ivey’s pecan plantations southeast of El Paso are fresh and lush. But the earth is cracked, and some of the trees all along the groves are showing the telltale signs of salt damage – brittle browning leaves and unkempt canopies – the specter of drought that has been going on for years.

The little nut means big business in far west Texas, Chihuahua, and southern New Mexico, but markets and the drought of 2021 are a concern for many pecan growers this season.

“It keeps me awake at night, drought and lack of good quality water – it’s a serious concern,” Ivey said. He said the first three irrigation cycles this year, flooding the orchards, came from groundwater, which is both unusual and not ideal.

Ivey said it “adds insult to injury” to pump groundwater, which is often of poor and inferior quality in El Paso County. It’s also more expensive than diverting surface water from the Rio Grande, the lifeblood of irrigation through New Mexico and Far West Texas.

Shannon Ivey uses diesel-powered wells to pump groundwater to supplement surface water irrigation. (Danielle Prokop / El Paso Matters)

The Rio Grande only raced in Texas in June, months later than in previous years. Jesús “Chuy” Reyes, general manager of the El Paso County Water Improvement District, said he expected allocations of 13 inches, well below the 42 inches of water expected in a “normal” year. In Doña Ana County, New Mexico, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District estimated that farmers would only receive 3 to 4 inches – a single open irrigation run for just over a month.

The pecan industry is valued at nearly $ 400 million, with Georgia, New Mexico and Texas producing the majority of American pecans. However, culture is not immune to climate change or natural disasters on a national scale. Hurricane Michel in 2018, destroyed 740,000 trees, ruined 55 million pounds of nuts and cost farmers about $ 560 million in damages in Georgia.

But measuring the impact of a drought on crops is not as easy to follow as a major disaster.

Often, individual private insurance companies pay farmers for losses due to drought, said Jaime Bustamante, who works for the El Paso Agricultural Services Agency. This office is part of the US Department of Agriculture, which provides federal funding – such as assistance for natural disasters like COVID-19 or disasters like hurricanes and floods – directly to farmers.

“We haven’t paid for the (drought) losses in the pecan industry,” Bustamante said. “It doesn’t mean that there haven’t been losses due to the drought, but they don’t go through our office.”

Shannon Ivey shows off green pods that will eventually turn into harvested nuts in late fall. (Danielle Prokop / El Paso Matters)

Temperatures rise during the hottest part of the growing season and Richard Hareema, a pecan and pistachio specialist at New Mexico State University, said June through August was a crucial part of the season. growth process. This is when the edible part, called the kernel or “meat” of the pecan nut, develops.

“This is part of the season when, when all the crops are really, really going to experience the most water stress,” Hareema said.

Jay Lillywhite, a professor at NMSU who studies agribusiness management, said pecan growers face a lot of uncertainties moving forward. He said the costs of planting trees and waiting seven to eight years to produce a profitable crop was a bet farmers were willing to take due to “relatively stable prices.”

“If I plant alfalfa, I can tear it up next year and plant something different if that doesn’t work,” Lillywhite said. “It’s more difficult to do with trees, given the initial investment you have. “

However, current producer concerns include less surface water, which he says could lead to higher groundwater pumping costs. There are also higher fuel prices that drive up fertilizer costs.

“All of these questions that you have to answer today, and you have to wait over seven years to find the answers,” Lillywhite said. “It’s a difficult economic model to follow.

The pecans were first developed commercially in Doña Ana County in the 1930s and reached over 14,000 acres of pecans in El Paso County and 45,000 acres in New Mexico. They require a lot of water, with Texas Cooperative Extension Estimate 100 to 200 gallons per day per tree, or about 2 inches of water per week. When it comes to Shannon Ivey’s midsize farm with 575 acres, the water adds up.

Pecan groves stretch for miles in Texas’s Old West. The five westernmost counties produce about 50% of Texas’ improved pecan crop. (Danielle Prokop / El Paso Matters)

Ivey said the techniques and infrastructure on the farm have changed over time to be more efficient, whether that’s covering ditches with concrete or changing soil chemistry to save water. He said one technology, drip irrigation, is impossible to implement in El Paso due to salty groundwater and soil composition. Without surface water or rain to dilute the salts, it prevents the roots from absorbing water.

“In essence, you are suffocating and poisoning your trees,” he said.

This has been one of the driest years in decades, with Ivey measuring 0.79 inches of rain recorded on his property, which is also a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather station. The area typically receives about 10 inches of rain.

Warming temperatures in the southwest mean more pressure on rivers and less water flowing downstream.

When asked, Ivey said he hopes the water situation will change.

“(It will happen) if we can get a El Niño type of weather event coming up, and if we can get that precipitation that just hit in that area of ​​Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Wolf Creek above our water table or our watershed, ”he said . “It’s going to take a few years, right? It will not happen overnight. I guess I’d rather go to sleep at night and feel a little more upbeat than negative.

Cover photo: Shannon Ivey, a fourth generation pecan farmer in Tornillo, stands in a row of pecans with trees approaching 50 years old. (Danielle Prokop / El Paso Matters)


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