Historical Background of Pecan Plantings in the Western Region

Guide H-626
Esteban Herrera, Extension Horticulturist
College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences New Mexico State University. (Print Friendly PDF)

Planting History

The pecan (Carya illinoinensis (Wangenh.) K.Koch) is not generally considered a native of New Mexico. Although a few large trees producing seedling-type pecan nuts were or are growing in southern New Mexico, there is evidence that some of these were brought to the area from central Texas and north-central Mexico in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Few of these original pecan trees remain today. One, considered the largest pecan tree in the state, still grows near the town of Mesilla, NM.

The oldest known planting of the so-called improved (named) varieties was made at the Fabian Garcia Agricultural Center of New Mexico State University in Mesilla Park, NM in 1915 and 1916. At the time it was planted, the four-acre planting was the largest pecan planting in New Mexico. Many of these trees remain in their original planting sites.

One of the early pioneers of pecan promotion in the Mesilla Valley was J.W. Newberry of Fairacres, NM. Newberry grew, propagated, and sold pecan trees. The first large-scale planting of pecans in New Mexico, however, was made by the late Deanne F. Stahmann. This 30-acre planting was made on the Snow Ranch, a farm south of Las Cruces in 1934 and 1935. Stahmann mainly planted 'Western' with 'Burkett' as the pollinator. He made subsequent additional plantings on the remainder of the Snow Ranch, as it is still known today. What is known today as Stahmann Farms was land that was cleared and leveled for planting later. Other smaller plantings were made by other growers in southern Doña Ana County and in the Rio Grande Valley below El Paso, TX, shortly after the Snow Ranch plantings.

Economic conditions in the mid-1920s and early 1930s kept pecans out of the consumer market. The average pay at that time was 75 cents for a 9-hour workday, or 8.5 cents an hour, making pecans selling at just under 14 cents a pound worth almost 2 hours of work. Today's minimum wage of $4.25 an hour, with pecans selling in 1992 for about $1.50 a pound, allows a worker at that wage level to buy nearly 3 pounds of pecans for an hour's pay.

In the early 1960s, interest in planting new pecan orchards grew because, for the first time, pecans were considered economically justified after other growers saw the returns from Stahmann's highly productive trees planted in earlier years.

Plantings of pecans in West Texas and Arizona probably began as they did in New Mexico. Some of the early plantings of pecans in Arizona were made in the late 1920s to mid-1930s. Arizona reported 4,000 acres of pecans in 1932, with about 5% of the trees bearing pecans. There were no reports of pecan yield in Arizona until the mid-1970's when plantings made in the early 1960s came into production. In the 1980s more pecan trees were planted in Arizona than in New Mexico; however, in the late 1980s some acreage was abandoned in Arizona due to high water costs. Most pecan plantings in California were made in 1980; the average tree age in 3,500 acres planted is about 18 years.

Five of the top 10 pecan-producing counties in the United States are located in the western region. In fact, the top three counties in the country are situated in this region. Doña Ana, NM, is first followed by El Paso, TX and Pima, AZ. Pinal county in Arizona is ranked eighth followed by Pecos, TX. (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1992). There are three shelling plants in the Western Region: Visalia, CA; Sahuarita, AZ and Las Cruces, NM. Another plant in Juarez, Mexico, State of Chihuahua, services pecan growers from northern Mexico. Currently, there are about 61,122 acres of pecans in the western region, which involves far west Texas, Southern NM, Southern Arizona and California's San Joaquin Valley (figure 1).

Western region growing region for pecans

Figure 1. Western pecan growing region.

Pecan Varieties

The pecan varieties in the original planting at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center are given in table 1. Few of these varieties are still grown, because many were not well adapted for the Southwest and other western pecan production areas. Varieties tested later are also included in the table's right-hand column.

Table 1. History of plantings of pecan varieties in southern New Mexico.

Planted 1916-1917 Planted 1930 and later Planted after 1960
Colorado Burkett Western Schley
Delmas Western Schley Wichita (Pollinator)
Frotscher San Saba Impr.
Halber Clark
Indiana Harbin
Kentucky Mahan
Moneymaker Oklahoma
Niblack Williamson
Onliwon Kincaid
Pabst Altoman
Schley Ideal (Bradley)
Texas Prolific
Van Deman

Pecan Production

Pecan production in New Mexico has been recorded since 1920, when only 626 pounds were harvested. New Mexico pecan orchards totaled about 6,000 acres in 1963, but this increased production in the 1960s was mostly from Stahmann Farm plantings. As other plantings came into production, the state's total yield increased (table 2).

The western region produced over 100 million pounds of top-quality pecans in 1992 (table 3). Nationwide production is shown in table 4.

Table 2. New Mexico pecan production (thousand lb).

Year lb
1920 626
1929 3,543
1939 21,936
1949 1,943
1969 6,700
1979 14,700
1984 24,000
1987 25,000
1988 26,000
1989 29,000
1990 34,000
1991 29,000
1992 30,000
1993 36,000
1994 24,000
1995 45,000
1996 22,000
1997 45,000
1998 32,000
1999 50,000 (USDA January 2000)
Source: NMDA, Agricultural Statistics

Table 3. Acreage and pecan production in the western pecan growing region, 1999.

State Acres Production (Million lb)
Arizona 15,0001 24.33
California 3,500 2.83
New Mexico 29,6222 50.03
Texas (Far West) 13,0001 25.01
Total 61,122 102.1
2 1999 Census
3Source: National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA

Table 4. Early and current U.S. pecan production and price/lb.

Total Price per lb (cents)
Year U.S. Production
(thousand lb)
Native and seedling Improved varieties
1924 25,141 18.2 37.8
1931 74,985 5.7 13.8
1979 210,600 41.9 70.0
1984 232,400 46.6 68.2
1989 250,500 53.8 78.6
1990 205,000 90.2 128.0
1991 299,000 83.5 114.0
1992 166,000 114.0 157.0
1993 365,000 39.6 62.9
1994 199,000 76.4 115.0
1995 268,000 72.5 112.0
1996 221,500 46.4 68.6
1997 338,100 53.1 92.9
1998 146,400 77.2 135.0
1999 324,500 53.9 97.0
Source: National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA

Tree Spacing

Tree spacing in early plantings was determined by the growth and fruiting habits of the pecan tree. In the early years, pecan trees were considered a crop that did not need pruning to maintain high production and quality, as with apples and peaches. Early recommendations were for mature trees to be spaced 60' X 60' but 50' X 50' would also be acceptable.

Plantings made by Stahmann were 60 ft between rows of trees and 30 feet between trees in the row to establish 24 trees per acre. As the pecan tree grew larger and shading began to affect size and quality of nuts, the plan was to remove every other tree and have a final spacing of 60' X 60'. However, economics dictated that more trees per acre during early production years meant more return per acre; thus, about thirty years ago more trees were interplanted resulting in a 30' X 30' spacing. Trees are thinned to prevent too much shading and the consequent death of branches in the tree's lower areas.

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May 2000, Las Cruces NM