New Mexico pecan growers are dancing in their groves this spring after becoming the leading U.S. pecan-producing state in 2006, displacing Georgia, typically the national champ.

The 46 million-pound crop was valued at about $85 million, with grower prices at about $1.85 per pound.

Fall rains helped produce a high quality crop even though 2006 was the alternate-bearing year for production (pecan trees produce a major crop one year followed by a smaller crop the next).

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Georgia’s 2006 pecan production is estimated at about 40 million pounds (alternate-bearing year), down from 80 million pounds in 2005. The 2006 production value was pegged at about $62 million, with an average per-pound price of about $1.57. Production also dropped because of drought.

Third place went to Texas, with 36 million pounds and $61 million value, with grower prices about $1.71 per pound.

$6 million pecan export deal

New Mexico growers also landed a $6 million, 3 million-pound export sale to China. Sales began last fall and continue through this spring.

In the past, the Chinese bought mostly U.S. shelled pecans, but sales have always been minimal. The China deal includes strictly in-shell nuts. Payment terms were every grower’s dream — paid in advance, FOP Las Cruces.

The Chinese also indicate they will purchase a portion of New Mexico’s 2007 crop.

Several years in the making, New Mexico Department of Agriculture International Trade Specialist James Ditmore assisted with the export deal.

“The New Mexico pecan industry requested my assistance to expand pecan exports,” he says. State dollars have funded the pecan-marketing efforts.

“The world is more health-conscious and people understand the health benefits of consuming nuts, including pecans,” Ditmore says. “Pecan oil is one of the most highly unsaturated oils from Mother Nature. Pecans are heart-healthy, cholesterol-free, and high in antioxidants. My job is to extol the health benefits.”

Ditmore marketed New Mexico pecans to food brokers from around the world at a major international trade show in Paris last October. “We cooked pecan-crusted halibut, pecan chicken, along with chicken pecan salad.”

Chinese buyers found the New Mexico pecan fare so tasty they traveled to pecan farms in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley to purchase large quantities.

“They wanted a big nut, and the Western Schley variety, widely grown in New Mexico, is a medium to large nut,” Ditmore sys. “They also wanted a high quality pecan. No one beats New Mexico’s pecan quality because of excellent orchard management.”

The United States exports 2 percent to 3 percent of annual production, on average; the production belt stretches from California to Georgia.

“Doña Ana County, N.M., has the highest pecan-acreage concentration of any county in the United States,” says David Salopek, a Las Cruces area pecan grower and president of the New Mexico Pecan Growers Association. “It is also the top pecan-producing county in the United States.”

Nuts for sale

Greg, Sam, Frank Paul, and Oleta Salopek, with the 550-acre New Mexico Pecan Company at Mesilla, N.M., were the first growers to sell and ship New Mexico pecans to China. In fact, the Chinese purchased the farm’s entire 2006 production — about 750,000 pounds.

They shipped 17 containers, each filled with 40,000 to 50,000 pounds packed in 25-kilo bags, by rail to Long Beach, Calif., for shipment to China. Delivery from Las Cruces to China took about 18 days.

“The sale is our livelihood,” explained Oleta. Company president Greg Salopek says the deal “helped stabilize the industry.”

The Salopeks are optimistic the Chinese will purchase their entire 2007 crop as well, Sam Salopek says.

While the family didn’t divulge the 2006 per pound sale price, it was better than domestic market prices, they say.

The Chinese purchased more than 1 million pounds through San Saba Pecan LP at Las Cruces.

“The price was a good deal for us,” says company buyer Phillip Arnold. He says the price range for all New Mexico pecans sold to the Chinese averaged $1.75 to $2.50 per pound.

San Saba Pecans, San Saba, Texas, grows pecans in West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico, and buys from other growers.

Arnold, president of the Western Pecan Growers Association, says the 2006 New Mexico crop yielded 50 percent to 60 percent meat. Roughly 80 percent of the crop is the Western Schley variety.

“The new varieties grown in New Mexico have more meat than native pecans,” he says. Native pecans contain about 40 percent meat.

The Chinese market has the potential to take as much as 10 percent of North American production, Arnold says.

The Chinese purchased a total of 63 containers of 2006 New Mexico pecans, or more than 2.5 million pounds. The buyers have expressed interest in purchasing 150 to 200 containers total, Ditmore says.

Pecan leaders China-bound

Ditmore and a handful of growers/buyers, including Arnold and Greg Salopek, are headed to China in mid-May.

“This exciting opportunity allows growers to participate directly in the export market,” Ditmore says. “It provides growers another marketing option.”

The Middle East is another untapped market for New Mexico pecans, he says.

New Mexico has 300 to 400 pecan growers, with 60 growers producing about 90 percent of the production, David Salopek says.

email: cblake@farmpress.com