Drought, weather extremes bedevil pecan growers

By Lee Allen

Originally published on farmprogress.com

March 2021

Freeze in late 2019, summer heat and lack of monsoon rains made for a lighter crop.

With pruners having done their work and sweepers standing by, a fleet of Orchard Rite 9400 shakers worked their way down seemingly endless tree rows for a second shake at Arizona’s Green Valley Pecan Company.

“This is an off-year for us because we had no monsoon rains last year,” said Brian Driscoll, vice president and COO of Farmers Investment Company. “It was really hot in June, July, August — blowtorch level heat -- all the way into October, the driest year in Arizona in umpteen years. Pecans need a break with some cooling off at night and these trees didn’t get any relief.”

Driscoll keeps watch over 9,000 acres of nut trees in two locations in Arizona (8,144 acres) and another orchard (950 acres) in Albany, Ga., planted with both Western Schley and Wichita varieties.

Farmer Core

“We did an early shake in November 2020, right after Thanksgiving, because we wanted to get an early start and get as much of the quality nuts off because it was so warm in October and November, record heat days in the 80s,” Driscoll said. “That’s too warm.

“Our yield decrease this year was the ultimate result of a Halloween freeze in both Arizona and New Mexico in 2019,” he said. “It was a crop killer because our buds are not dormant in October and many blocks got their yield knocked out of them when temperatures dipped as low as 24 degrees in low-lying areas.”

So, although the Cochise County San Simon Farm had a decent on-year, parts of Cochise County orchards were both on and off, and it was an off-year in the Santa Cruz Valley following a huge crop in the 2019-2020 harvest.

“We had a suture-split problem, particularly in the Wichitas with their thin shells due to the heat,” he said. “They suffer environmental stress as they size and when it cools down in the Fall and they start to finish filling, they tend to fill too much, overfill, and we get a split nut at harvest. That’s a problem for our production plant to make halves because the nuts are split in the wrong direction.”

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Sprinklers, trees added

In an effort to keep costs down, Driscoll and crew are installing more sprinkler irrigation and adding more trees per acre.

“In the early days when there was no hedging or topping, tree canopies were large, a lot of them 60 by 60 (feet) and representing only a dozen trees per acre,” he said. “Although we’re not doing it to every Western block, we’re now interplanting, going down and putting in another row of Wichitas between the older trees with a goal of 30-36 trees per acre. Because cost-per-unit runs high, especially labor expenses in Arizona, we’ve got to have a lot of nuts per acre to make the numbers work.”

Another longer-term cost-reduction effort involves new installation of some 300 acres of sprinklers and a recent short-term contract for a Colorado River water pipeline as a renewable source of water.

“We’ll be done here with second shake by late January before moving on to first shake in our remaining acreage and our organic sector. We were the first in the state to plant organic pecans, but Mexican growers and processors are now offering organic pecans and price margins have dropped.”

Looking at the retail side, Driscoll said, “Consumption may go up because prices are so attractive, the lowest we’ve seen in years.”

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