Pecan Farming In The Desert
Pecan farming is often associated with the sprawling farms of the South (where they are known as “pee-cans”) despite the fact that most pecans today come from the arid plains of the Southwest. In the cultural imagination of America, pecans evoke classic antebellum architecture– white houses with wide, open porches; slow, warm evenings; and the faintest of breezes.
The pecan tree originated in Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, central Texas, and northeast Mexico, growing along rivers and in floodplains as it was cultivated by Native Americans, who first referred to the nut by its current name– pecan is an Algonquian word meaning “all nuts requiring a stone to crack“.
During the late 1800s the trees spread to Florida and Georgia, as demand for pecans grew in Europe, and the rest is history. Pecans have become so endemic to the South that the traditional Thanksgiving dessert is often referred to as “Southern Pecan Pie” or more regionally as “Georgia Pecan Pie”. The American version of pralines (now a staple of chocolate boxes everywhere) originated in and around New Orleans, when French settlers replaced the original recipe’s almonds with pecans. Though they are enjoyed and eaten across the states and the culinary world, pecans remain– in the mythology of America– distinctly tied to the South.
That impression, however, is an outdated one.
Chanan Singh, a second-generation pecan farmer, is the proprietor of Pecan House, a 133-acre orchard just outside El Paso in the borderlands of West Texas. The farm is less than a half-mile from New Mexico and a little over a dozen miles from the border with Mexico, in a lush strip of land known as the Mesilla Valley. Nourished by the Rio Grande, the Mesilla Valley is known as an agricultural oasis and is home to a stretch of farms and wineries, despite being otherwise surrounded by the dry expanse of the desert. Long summers, a more stable climate, and the near absence of humidity (which plagues Southern states and leads to fungal diseases that can decimate pecan crops) make the area an ideal region for the pecan industry to flourish. As a result, Singh’s farm has grown incrementally each year.
In the 1930s, not long after the Mesilla Valley was first advertised as a destination for good health, Singh’s grandfather arrived in the El Paso area after an adventurous early life: stowing away on a boat from India at age 14, landing in Hawaii, and learning to farm rice from a family in San Francisco before eventually making the move to Texas. Initially, Singh’s father and grandfather farmed alfalfa and cotton, but in the 1970s, they decided to plant the first pecan trees on Pecan House’s original seven acres. Those trees took hold and are still growing there today, now surrounded by 126 more acres– including two new additional acres planted last year, which contain trees Singh sprouted in his own nursery (by way of contrast, many farmers buy their seedlings).
Nine years ago, Singh also went into business shelling pecans (both his own and custom shelling the pecans of others), which is likewise uncommon among most pecan farmers. In their first year, Pecan House shelled 2,500 pounds; last year, they reached 22,000. Singh’s son, who is currently at school across the state in Arlington, an alcove near Dallas, will take over the farm “when it’s his time.”
Pecan House is in it for the long haul. With over 1,000 named pecan varieties, the popularity of the pecan continues to grow with no sign of decline. Weather is key for successful pecan farming. In an area constantly threatened by drought, timing is everything. Water can be scarce– but because of Pecan House’s prime location on the Texas side of the border with New Mexico, Singh has the rights to use the irrigation canals that bring water from the Rio Grande, which is far superior to the salty water that can be pumped from the ground.
But even with a prime location, farming pecans can be challenging as climate change shifts the calendar in unpredictable ways. “The days have been cooler, the nights have been cooler– I know some farmers got hit with an early freeze,” Singh explains. “It hasn’t happened to us– knock on wood.”
Winds that used to arrive in March to pollinate the trees now come as late as April or May, drastically shortening the season, and last year a span of unusual weather for the area (like heavy snow) damaged many trees on neighboring pecan farms. A slow thaw also made the pecans difficult to harvest when picking time came around in December. (To harvest pecans, a tractor with a claw-like arm grabs the trunk of the tree and shakes out all the ripe pecans so that they fall to the ground. Then, a sweeper is brought through to pick them up– but with the ground soft and muddy from the melting snow, Singh says this step has become “a pain in the butt.”)
In spite of these challenges, states in the Southwest are quickly gaining on Georgia, which is still the top individual pecan producer. The combined output of New Mexico and Texas easily outweighs that of Georgia, and Arizona (rather than another Southern state) rounds out the list of top producers. Yet the legacy of the South remains firmly welded to the American spirit, even amid the Texas-based producers of this staple crop. Though he eats “a little bit of pecans every day,” Singh will tell you with a chuckle that his favorite way to eat them is still in a slice of Southern-style pecan pie.