The climate of the desert Southwest is ideal for growing pecans, and the region produces roughly one-third of all pecans grown in the United States. With global demand for their product rising, New Mexico pecan growers see a bright future. However, there is a hard constraint on pecan production: water. Growing pecans in New Mexico’s arid land requires the efficient and intelligent use of limited irrigation water resources.
In this interview, Greg Daviet, the manager of Dixie Ranch farm, speaks with Irrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about how pecans are grown and harvested in New Mexico and distributed around the world.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Greg Daviet: I am the farm manager for Dixie Ranch. Dixie Ranch was founded in 1905 by my great-grandfather in the Mesilla Valley and has been continuously operated since that time. We’ve been growing pecans since 1965, and I’ve been managing the farm since 1994. I am also the elected representative for Precinct 4 of the board of Elephant Butte Irrigation District.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about the farm and its history.
Greg Daviet: Our farm is currently about 325 acres. My great-grandfather established the initial 270 acres. We’ve been able to expand it a little bit over the last decade, and we hope to be able to continue to do so as property around us becomes available. We are right at the interface between the agricultural environment and the city of Las Cruces. Anytime we are able to preserve agricultural land and continue growing crops on it instead of allowing it to move into development, we attempt to do so.
Prior to planting pecan trees in 1965, our predominant crops were cotton and alfalfa. My great-grandfather originally raised white-faced Herefords on forage crops that he grew on the farm. He was from Louisiana, which is the origin of the Dixie part of our name. Ranch comes from the fact that he was raising cattle. We have retained that name for the last 115 years.
Joshua Dill: Are pecans your only crop today?
Greg Daviet: Pecans are the only thing that I currently grow. When I began managing the farm in 1994, we still had a little bit of cotton and alfalfa. I frequently say that I was not very good at growing either of those two crops, so we replaced them with pecans. When we acquire additional farmland, we generally continue to lease that land with the crops that are currently in production until we’re ready to plant the pecans, at which point we roll the complete management of the pecan trees into our operation.
Joshua Dill: How well do pecans grow in the climate of New Mexico?
Greg Daviet: Pecans are remarkably well suited to growing in the desert environment. A lot of the disease and fungal pressures pecan trees have in the Southeast are not problems here because of our dry climate. However, you need a regular and abundant source of water to grow pecans in the desert. The Rio Grande Project supplies the water for pecan production in the Mesilla, Rincon, and El Paso Valleys. There’s been a transition over the last 50 years from other cropping patterns to pecans because of how well suited our area is to them. Approximately one-third of the pecans grown in the United States are grown in our region.
Joshua Dill: Would you tell us about the process of growing, harvesting, and marketing pecans?
Greg Daviet: Immediately after harvest, our growing season begins again. That’s usually in January. In our operation, winter work is predominantly pruning the trees, disposing of the pruning, and doing soil maintenance. Our soil maintenance involves mechanically aggregating the soils to improve their drainage and water holding capacity. The pruning is to increase sunlight within the tree canopy. After we finish our winter work, we generally start the irrigation season. We irrigate for the first time in March, replenishing the water that has been depleted from the soil over winter. Soil fertilization, foliage fertilization, and pest management start in April. From April until the end of September, our focus is on irrigation and pest management. From the middle of June until the end of September, pecan trees are irrigated every 7–14 days depending on the soil type. Managing the irrigation of the trees is a constant task. The trees begin to senesce, or transition into dormancy, in early November. In our area, we wait for the first freeze before we begin the harvest process. The freeze will defoliate the trees, at which point the pecans need about a week to finish drying on the tree. Then we begin shaking the trees and harvesting the pecans. That generally lasts from Thanksgiving until Christmas. When that process is finished, we begin all over again.
Joshua Dill: What techniques do you use to irrigate your pecan trees?
Greg Daviet: At Dixie Ranch, we exclusively use flood irrigation. In the Mesilla Valley, we rely on both groundwater and surface water to irrigate our crop, and they’re very different in their quality. Our surface water has a high amount of suspended sediment. Our groundwater has a high number of dissolved solids. Currently, no filtration system has been demonstrated to be able to handle both of those water quality issues in an alternative irrigation system. In the Mesilla Valley, almost everything is flood irrigation. Outside the Mesilla Valley, solid-set sprinklers are common in the pecan and other tree nut industries. Surface drip is also used, although not as extensively as sprinklers.
Joshua Dill: Would you tell us more about how you mechanically improve soils for water capacity?
Greg Daviet: We use large earthmoving equipment, specifically excavators, to mechanically aggregate the layers of our soil. We are in a flood alluvium basin, so our soil has been deposited in layers by millennia of flood events. Layered soils don’t drain particularly well. There are issues with the varying water holding capacities of those layers, which is not particularly good for crops that want a consistent water holding capacity vertically through the soil. We take the excavator and mix the soil in place in a trench line through the orchard. This practice was started in the late 1970s or early 1980s by pioneers in our industry and is now common practice among all highly managed commercial pecan operations. By mechanically aggregating the soil and getting the coarse and fine particles mixed together, we can improve the homogeneity of the soil profile, improve its drainage, and get a more uniform water holding capacity for our trees.
Joshua Dill: What other water use efficiency measures does your farm use?
Greg Daviet: The predominant one is laser leveling. We laser level our fields with approximately 21⁄2 inches of slope for every 1,000 feet of run. The purpose of that is to flatten our wetting curve. The wetting curve is the description of how much water the head of the field takes compared to the tail. The water comes in at the head, so it’s got more time to infiltrate into the soil there as the water flows down toward the tail. We try to give the tail extra depth to compensate for the fact that the head gets extra time. We have also increased our flow rates and installed high-flow turnouts in our distribution system to more rapidly apply the irrigation water and make the distribution of that water as even as possible throughout any given flood basin.
Joshua Dill: Would you tell us about the process of storing and marketing the pecans?
Greg Daviet: The marketing of our product has changed substantially over the last decade. There has been an increase in foreign demand for our product and a consequent diversification in its marketing channels. Traditionally, all the pecans grown in the United States went to the domestic shelling industry, and the pecan meats were then sold to either end users or ingredient manufacturers. With the diversification of our marketing channels, products are now segregated into different marketing channels. We are still developing our on-farm processes to adapt to those new marketing channels. Traditionally, during the harvest period, you would sell the crop, ship it immediately, and then go straight back to growing without any concern about what was happening to the product from that point on. Now it is becoming more common for growers to be responsible for storing the crop, bearing the risk of adverse price movements, and financing the holding of that crop until it is needed by either an in-shell foreign user or a domestic shelling user. At Dixie Ranch, we are currently building a freezer so that we can manage that process on the farm, eliminating the economic friction caused by having third-
party cold storage handle the product and store it. This also reduces the banking needs of the shelling industry by reducing the financing required between the harvest period and sales to end users.
Joshua Dill: Why did the foreign demand for American pecans emerge?
Greg Daviet: There were pioneers in our industry who ventured into foreign markets such as China and built demand for pecans. Pecans are a natural, healthy source of plant protein; the oils of pecans are very good for heart health. For health-conscious foreign consumers, pecans are an outstanding product. Now that that demand has been sparked, it has really taken off and grown. As we’re able to improve trade agreements with foreign countries, demand for our product has increased.
Joshua Dill: What is the breakdown of domestic versus foreign sales today?
Greg Daviet: With the current uncertainty in the United States’ trade posture and its effects on foreign demand, that is hard to say, but immediately prior to the current uncertainty, 30–40 percent of the pecans grown domestically were being consumed by foreign consumers.
Joshua Dill: What trends do you see in the industry, and what is your outlook on the future?
Greg Daviet: I have an optimistic out look on the pecan industry. Currently, the world demands more pecans than we are able to grow. It takes many years for supply to catch up to demand, and with our current efforts to expand demand, I believe it will be many decades before we are able to substantially close the gap between demand and available supply. With that in mind, it is important for producers in the industry to stay focused on maximizing the value for our consumers, both in our own processes and in the processes we facilitate off the farm. In the desert Southwest, the limiting factor for all crops is water. There is a limit to how many pecans can be grown in West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. We will probably need producers of pecans outside the desert Southwest to maintain pace with the global demand for our product. I believe that the future of the pecan industry is bright.