Drought creates uncertainty for El Paso area pecan farmers
TORNILLO, Texas — Shannon Ivey grew up alongside the pecan orchards on his family’s farm.
Now 41, the fourth-generation pecan farmer recently walked under the shade of the nearly 50 year-old trees planted in the 1970s. Crawling with quail, songbirds and “pesky squirrels,” Ivey’s pecan groves southeast of El Paso are cool and lush. But the earth is cracked, and some of the trees all along the edges of groves show the telltale signs of salt damage — brittle browning leaves and shaggy canopies — the specter of the years-long drought.
The little nut means big business in Far West Texas, Chihuahua and Southern New Mexico, but markets and 2021’s drought are on a lot of pecan farmers’ minds this season.
“It keeps me up at night, the drought, and the lack of good water — it is a serious concern,” Ivey said. He said this year’s first three irrigation runs, flooding the orchards, were from groundwater — which is both unusual and not ideal.
Ivey said it “adds insult to injury” to pump groundwater, which is often briney and poorer 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.
The Rio Grande didn’t run in Texas until June, months later than previous years. Jesús “Chuy” Reyes, the general manager for El Paso County Water Improvement District, said he expected allotments of 13 inches, way below the 42 inches of water expected in a “normal” year. In New Mexico’s Doña Ana County, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District estimated farmers would only receive 3 to 4 inches, or a single irrigation run open for just over a month.
The pecan industry is valued at nearly $400 million, with Georgia, New Mexico and Texas producing the majority of U.S. pecans. However, the crop is not impervious to climate change or natural disasters nationwide. Hurricane Michael in 2018 destroyed 740,000 trees, ruined 55 million pounds of nuts and cost farmers about $560 million in damages in Georgia.
But measuring a drought’s impact on the crop isn’t as easy to track as a major disaster.
Often, individual private insurance companies pay out drought losses to farmers, said Jaime Bustamante, who works for the El Paso Farm Service Agency. That office is a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides federal funding — such as relief for natural disasters like COVID-19 or disasters like hurricanes and floods — directly to farmers.
“We have not paid out on (drought) losses in the pecan industry,” Bustamante said. “That’s not to say there haven’t been losses because of drought, but they don’t go through our office.”
Temperatures are rising in the hottest part of the growing season and Richard Hareema, a pecan and pistachio specialist at New Mexico State University, said June through August is a crucial part of the growing process. That’s when the edible portion, called the kernel or “meat” of the pecan, develops.
“That’s part of the season when, when all crops are really, really going to be experiencing the most water stress,” Hareema said.
Jay Lillywhite, a professor at NMSU who studies agribusiness management, said pecan growers face a lot of uncertainty moving forward. He said the costs of planting trees and waiting seven to eight years to produce a profitable crop used to be a gamble farmers were willing to take because of “relatively stable prices.”
“If I plant alfalfa, I can tear it up next year and plant something different if it doesn’t work out,” Lillywhite said. “It’s harder to do that with trees, given the initial investment you have.”
However, current concerns for growers include less surface water, which he said could mean increased costs for pumping groundwater. There are also higher fuel prices that drive up fertilizer costs.
“All those questions you have to answer today, and you’ve got to wait seven plus years to find out the answers,” Lillywhite said. “That’s a hard economic model to have to follow.”
Pecans were first commercially developed in Doña Ana County in the 1930s and have grown to more than 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 estimating 100 to 200 gallons a day per tree — or about 2 inches of water a week. When it comes to Shannon Ivey’s mid-sized farm with 575 acres, the water adds up.
Ivey said the farm’s techniques and infrastructure changed over time to be more efficient, whether by lining ditches with concrete or changing soil chemistry to save water. He said one technology, drip irrigation, is impossible to implement in El Paso because of the salty groundwater and soil makeup. Without surface water or rain to dilute the salts, it prevents roots from taking up water.
“In essence, you’re suffocating and poisoning your trees,” he said.
This year has been one of the driest 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 usually gets around 10 inches of rain.
Warming temperatures in the Southwest means more strain on rivers and less water making its way downstream.
When asked, Ivey said he’s hopeful the water situation will change.
“(That will happen) if we can get an El Niño type of weather event coming, and if we can get that rainfall that just hit in that Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Wolf Creek area above our water table or watershed,” he said. “It’s gonna take a couple of years, right? It’s not gonna happen overnight. I guess I’d rather go to sleep at night and feel a little more optimistic than negative.”
Cover photo: Shannon Ivey, a fourth-generation pecan farmer in Tornillo, stands in a pecan row with trees approaching 50 years old. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)