Pecan production in Arizona continues to gain steam with more affordable inputs and good market demand as the main drivers.
Joshua Sherman, commercial horticulture area agent with the University of Arizona (UA) Cooperative Extension, says 2017 is closing with double the number of new pecan acres planted over 2016.
There is an estimated 26,000 acres of pecans in Arizona with 14,000 acres in bearing production. This year, growers planted about 2,500 acres in pecan.
Most of the latest growth in Arizona pecan production is driven by more affordable land and water, Sherman explains. The state has some advantages over southeastern pecan-producing states, including a climate that excludes some pest and disease pressures found in more humid, wetter growing areas.
Even with the increase in pecan acres, Arizona still sits in the number four spot nationwide in pecan production, behind New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Georgia.
Sherman says most of Arizona’s new acreage is located in Cochise County in the southeast part of the state. The San Simon, McNeal, and Bowie areas in the county have a sizeable portion of new plantings. At least four larger pecan growers have processing facilities on site to hull and dry the nuts.
Demand in China for large in-shell pecans is spurring pecan production in other states as well. Arizona is also focused on supplying the export market, plus planting newer varieties that produce larger nuts and ripen earlier.
According to Sherman, most of the new acreage is planted in the popular Wichita and Western Schley varieties, yet the newer Waco and Pawnee varieties are also being planted.
Sherman is conducting pecan nutritional studies as pecan trees have a high demand for nitrogen and zinc. High pH soils in Arizona tend to tie up the zinc mineral in the soil profile preventing the trees from extracting it from the soil.
Foliar applications of zinc are routinely applied by most growers, but Sherman said research by UA Soils Specialist Jim Walworth shows good results with a chelated EDTA zinc applied via chemigation.
Sherman says the most limiting factors affecting further pecan growth in Arizona are water resources and the threat of the pecan weevil pest.
The pecan weevil, a major pest in Oklahoma and Texas pecans, is the most damaging pest of pecan. An orchard infestation can wipe out 60-70 percent of the crop yield, he says. The weevil has not been found in commercial pecan production in Arizona, but has been identified in some parts of eastern New Mexico which probably came in from Texas.
The Arizona Department of Agriculture is monitoring for the pest and has prohibited the import of any pecan material, including in-shell nuts and firewood, from states east of Arizona. Growers cannot even source bare root pecan trees or potted trees from any state to the East, Sherman says.
The main pecan tree source must be from nurseries in Arizona and California.
On average, individual male and female weevils destroy 0.23 and 0.29 nuts per day, respectively. Nuts punctured late in the season after shell hardening often remain green and adhere to the tree beyond the normal harvest period. This is why the weevil can go undetected by private tree shakers and shellers as the weevil larvae are unseen inside the shell.
Sherman says water demand for Arizona pecan exceeds other nut crops. Mature trees need about 5-6 acre feet of water annually for commercial production; more than for pistachio and wine grapes.
There is increased awareness in Arizona of over drafted groundwater supplies, he says. Most pecan orchards are irrigated with groundwater, and most growers use micro-sprinklers to conserve water.
Efficient irrigation is a priority for growers, according to Sherman, as water supplies to meet the needs of perennial tree crops may become limited or regulated in the near future.
This crop isn’t new to the Grand Canyon State. Pecan production dates back to 1927 when trees were planted in the Camp Verde area by Carl and Eva Hayden. The majority of these are still alive although not in commercial production.
Now 90 years old, these trees tower over a street named Pecan Lane. This was a factor in Camp Verde being deemed a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation.