Growing Nuts in NM

In the morning we visited the Haley Pecan Farm, just west of Roswell. The 1,600 acre farm is owned and operated by Bruce Haley, who recently received an $891,000 USDA Rural Development loan guarantee/grant package for the installation of a 350 kW solar voltaic system. Bruce showed us around the array, which was constructed in 2010 and is currently the largest sole proprietor solar project west of the Mississippi River. It consists of 1,518 solar panels that generate more than enough electricity to power the pump on a large well that provides water to irrigate the neighboring pecan orchards. The cost of the 350 kW solar system was $1.5 million (compare that to $1 million for a 1 MW wind system – a better deal, but the wind potential is low in the Roswell area), but Bruce estimates payback in about four and a half years – thanks to the grants, tax credits, checks from the local utilities company (rather than bills) and renewable energy credits ($10,000 to $13,000 per month) he receives.

From the solar array, we walked across the road to a lush, shady pecan orchard where Bruce described the history of Haley Pecan Farm. The land was once farmed by his father in alfalfa and cotton production. Over time, his father saw how lucrative the pecan business was becoming in New Mexico and slowly started transitioning his fields into orchards. This move required some patience – and faith – as it takes about 12 years for pecan trees to become established and begin producing. It was at this point that Bruce became involved in the farm, and eventually took over.

Bruce estimates that there are about 40,000 trees in his orchards; in total, he and his staff manage 92 separate fields in the area. Pecan orchards require a certain amount of maintenance: the orchards must be flooded every two weeks (pecans require 5 acre-feet of water for maximum production), fed with zinc foliar sprays four to five times per season, and thinned regularly so that sunlight reaches through the canopy. Bruce sells his nuts to New Mexico pecan shellers and also directly to Chinese buyers after the harvest in late November. Pecan production is extremely variable from year to year. Last season, the farm brought in a bumper crop of about 6,000 pounds of pecans per acre; this year Bruce is expecting to harvest 500 pounds per acre. In total, the farm produced 6 million pounds of pecans last year – about 10% of New Mexico’s entire pecan crop. Because of the variability of pecan farming, Bruce hedges his bets by getting creative. He owns specialized equipment like tree-spades (used for transplanting full-grown trees) and tree-shakers (used for harvesting nuts) that he contracts out to local farms. He also helps smaller growers in the area by buying their harvests at a fair price and then aggregating the nuts with his product. This is necessary because the smallest sale that most distributors or buyers will make is on the order of 48,000 pounds. It was great to see such creative and thoughtful management of an orchard this size.

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After we bade Bruce goodbye and had a quick roadside picnic lunch, we headed northeast toward Portales. Our next destination was the Sunland Peanut Butter Plant. Sunland Inc. was formed in 1988 and aggregates, processes and distributes Valencia peanuts grown by local farmers in eastern New Mexico and west Texas. Portales is known as the Valencia Peanut Basin of the Nation, as about 90% of the Valencia peanuts produced in the US are grown within 120 miles of the Sunland Plant. Veronica gave us a tour of the processing facility and warehouse, where both organic and conventional peanut butters are made and stored. Sunland makes its own brand of peanut butters, and it also has contracts with numerous other brands, such as Trader Joe’s, Costco and Sunflower Farmer’s Market. In fact, most of the organic and additive-free peanut butters available in the US are made at the Sunland plant. We also toured the roasting and shelling facility, where both in-shell and shelled peanuts are roasted, bagged, stored, and then shipped across the world.

We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak briefly with the Sunland Inc. CEO, Jimmy Shear. He has been managing Sunland since its inception in the late 80s. Even though the company has grown substantially over the past two decades (it now has 100 employees), Jimmy still operates Sunland as a small, family-owned business. In order to save on operation costs, he is currently looking into investing in some form of onsite renewable energy – preferably wind – to generate electricity to run the energy-intensive plant. Jimmy has also found an economically viable way for Sunland to coexist with the expanding local dairy industry. Peanut hulls are now sold to local dairies to use as cattle feed, and some of the Valencia peanut production has moved just across the border into west Texas, where arable land is plentiful and more affordable.

Our last stop of the day was at a recently planted peanut farm in Portales that sells its harvest to Sunland. For most of us, it was our first time seeing a field of peanuts! Peanuts are legumes that, unlike beans and peas, grow underground and are irrigated by center-pivot systems. They are usually planted in May and harvested in the early autumn. Each plant grows about 20 peanuts that have three to five kernels per shell. The sandy soil of the Portales valley and surrounding high plains is favorable for plentiful peanut production.

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