Above: Pecan production is a family affair for the Salopeks—Adam, Dustin, Heather, Rett, and Joseph—in one of their family orchards in the Mesilla Valley near Las Cruces.
Flashy, spicy chile gets all the glory when it comes to New Mexico’s best-known edible crops. But do you want in on a culinary secret? Plain-Jane pecans are the number-one commercial food crop in the state, and when it comes to nationwide production, NM is second only to Georgia. With some 67 million pounds of in-shell pecans sent to market—where they have a value of $140.7 million—that’s the combined weight of more than 67 of the biggest wide-body Boeing jets ever made. And according to New Mexico State University pecan specialist Richard Heerema, we’re in for another banner year.
The harvest kicks off in November, right in sync to make multiple appearances on Thanksgiving tables, where pecans finally get their chance to dazzle—in everything from crunchy dressing to gooey pie (see our cornucopia of recipes).
But before we eat, let’s crack the mystery of how the humble pecan became such a powerhouse of a product.
In a Nutshell—Pecans 101
A native North American nut indigenous to the Mississippi River Valley, East Texas, and northern Mexico, pecans were brought to the Mesilla Valley by settlers in the late 1800s. The trees were valued as much for shade in a hot climate as for the nutmeats that had sustained many Native peoples for centuries.
Pioneering horticulturist Fabián García, the first agricultural specialist at what is now NMSU in Las Cruces, is famous for laying the foundation for the state’s commercial chile business. He contributed similar but lesser-known influence in pecan production. In 1913, he began planting some dozen and a half varieties of pecan trees in what the university now calls the Fabian Garcia Science Center. Knowing that the trees flourished in the rich soil of the lower Mississippi River, García suspected that the trees might thrive near the Río Grande. His goal was to find varieties of pecan trees that produced well and had a relatively thin shell for simple cracking. Some of the trees just up and died, but one variety, the Western Schley, thrived.
The Western Schley is less impacted by heat and drought stress than many other varieties. Pecan orchards here typically do require supplemental water, but, according to Heerema, because the orchards are permanent plantings, sophisticated irrigation can be designed to water them efficiently and at just the right time. On the flip side, the dry climate here helps our trees avoid fungus and disease that can plague more humid areas of production like Georgia and Texas, the third-most-productive state. Our growers can skip a lot of the fungicides and insecticides needed elsewhere. (Del Valle Pecans of Mesilla is just one of several organic sources.)
Pecans require a long growing season, which is one reason they thrive in the state’s warm, sun-drenched south. Patience is as important as water in pecan production, with trees requiring eight to twelve years to yield a good crop. The sweet-tasting nuts are sold in-shell and out, and in a variety of preparations. (The state’s two titans—pecans and chile—make a nice couple when nuts are dusted with red or green chile powder, a popular snack often packaged as a gift.)
Miles of pecan trees aligned in tidy rows extend alongside NM 28 south of Mesilla, and are starkly beautiful in late winter, when the dark bare branches stretch skyward, the blue sky or the Organ Mountains glowing behind. “Bud break” typically comes in March, with “flower set” and pollination following by April. The trees are a gorgeous summer sight when fully leafed out, blanketed in jade green.
Plenty for Everybody
The first of New Mexico’s significant pecan orchards dates to 1932, established by Deane Stahmann, just a few miles from Fabian Garcia’s experimental trees. Many of those along NM 28 were planted by him. Stahmann was regarded as an innovator in the business. He developed pruning techniques that provided more light to all branches. He also replaced the manual labor of gathering nuts by using sticks to shake tree limbs with machines. He utilized mechanized pulleys on tractors to vibrate the nuts from the trees. The basic technique, with some modern upgrades, is still in use today.
Initially, pecans were just one of the Stahmann crops, with cotton originally king. Another of his orchard practices was inter-cropping: planting the pecan trees in the middle of the cotton fields so that cotton could continue to be the money crop in the years needed for the trees to mature. Roving Scripps-Howard columnist Ernie Pyle, in a pair of 1939 articles, referred to Stahmann as the “Henry Ford of the Upper Valley” when describing Stahmann’s farming techniques and the switchover from cotton to pecans.
The Stahmann family today farms 3,200 acres of “estate-grown pecans,” meaning every nut sold is grown and harvested and otherwise processed under their watchful eyes on their property. Some of us still miss the Stahmanns Country Store, a quaint retail outlet the family used to operate among the orchards. However, they chose a few years ago to focus their business solely on wholesale nut sales.
The Salopek family, another clan prominent in the pecan world, farms in the Mesilla Valley, next door to the Stahmanns. Four generations ago, Salopek family members immigrated here from Croatia. Greg Salopek, a principal in many of the family enterprises, says his extended family has four incorporated farms, with some 8,000 acres of trees. “Collectively, we’re one of the largest family-owned pecan farms in the world.”
Their nuts arrive at the plant in-shell and then are sterilized. They may end up packed into wooden crates to ship worldwide, or get shelled and sold in bulk, packaged, or made directly into tasty treats for the New Mexico Pecan Company label. Greg’s latest enterprise is the Mesilla Valley Store, a charming retail outlet for the company’s pecans, pecan oil, and pecan pies, sold whole or by the slice. The store occupies an 1850s-era building on Mesilla’s plaza and carries many other New Mexico–sourced food products (2350 Calle Principal; 575-524-1003; mesillavalleystore. com). The family’s New Mexico Pecan Company offers natural nuts as well as flavored varieties at nmpecan.com, and Greg’s cousin Heather Salopek has her own mail-order nut business, Legacy Pecans (legacypecans.com).
Not all New Mexico pecans come from Doña Ana County, which encompasses south-central New Mexico from the border to Hatch. Just to the northeast, near Tularosa, the Glover family farms approximately 260 acres of orchards, mostly planted by patriarch Johnny Glover in 1969. His son Jay recently served as president of the National Pecan Growers Council, the international marketing organization for the industry. Pecan sales are growing steadily around the world, a boon to our state’s agricultural economy.
“China is the heavyweight new market,” Jay says. “When we started conversations about trade there, no word even existed for pecan in Mandarin. The name that was coined translates as ‘long-life nut.’ I think that’s perfect, since the pecan has the highest amount of antioxidants of any tree nut, and it’s packed with protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals.”
Jay’s sister, Kristy Shaklee, runs the family’s retail store, the Tularosa Pecan Company in the Tularosa Travel Center (21 St. Francis Dr.; 575-585-3196; tularosapecan.com). Just try to resist the shop’s freshly made pecan-studded chocolate or vanilla fudge. You can order their nuts au naturel, both shelled and in-shell, as well as coated in chocolate, chile, or other flavorings. The Pecos Basin, including Carlsbad and Roswell, has important pecan production, too. A couple of Roswell pecan farms that also do mail-order business are T & J Pecan Farm (tjpecanfarm.com) and Mountain States Pecan (pecan.com).
Many smaller pecan producers sell their nuts at farmers’ markets and farm stands like Katie’s Country Store at Lyles Family Farms, just west of Las Cruces (3855 W. Picacho Ave.; 575-526-1919; mesillavalleymaze.com). You can even imbibe New Mexico pecan goodness, if you’re so inclined, in the form of pecan beer from Las Cruces’ Pecan Grill & Brewery, which combines the nut extract with their amber ale and is sold in six-packs and found on tap in various in-the-know craft beer joints. While in Las Cruces, stop in for chicken braised in the beer, as well as stuffed Hatch green chiles with a pecan-breadcrumb coating (500 S. Telshor Blvd.; 575-521-1099; pecangrill.com). Up in Pie Town, at the renowned Pie-O-Neer café, proprietor Kathy Knapp insists on using pecans sourced from a farm in Arrey, just north of Hatch, in her pies (US 60; 575-772-2711; pie-o-neer.com). You can make your own pie—and wow Thanksgiving guests—with these recipes. Let’s get cracking!