New Mexico pecan farm tries different tree spacing

So far, so good for Frank Salopek and Sons Farm’s 600 acres of pecan orchards in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley — the weather has cooperated this season, with a cool spring, followed by a typically hot, dry summer, and adequate water supplies thanks to a decent snow pack this past winter.

“Right now, it’s hard to tell if we’ll have a 100 percent full crop,” says Frank Paul Salopek of Las Cruces. “But, it looks really promising. If the weather and the bugs cooperate, it should be a good on-year for us.”

Salopek, his mother, Oleta, and two brothers, Sam and Greg, run the farm. The brothers’ father, Frank, planted the farm’s first pecan trees nearly 40 years ago, and they finished planting pecans on their home place 18 years ago. They have expanded production with leased orchards.

Most of the pecans are Western Schley, with some Wichita and Bradley pollinators. The oldest orchards are planted on a 30x30-foot spacing. In some blocks, every other row has been removed, making for a 60-foot offset pattern and reducing the number of trees by half.

“In an on-year, yields in the blocks with the fewest trees total just about as much as the blocks with the 30x30-foot spacing,” Frank Paul says. “But, in an off-year, there aren’t enough trees in the wider-spaced blocks to make up the difference, and they yield only about one-half to three-fourths as much as 30 x 30-foot spacings.”

In the late 1990s, the Salopeks experimented with 40 x 20 foot spacing with a few new plantings. The idea was to increase production of the younger trees and then remove every other row once the trees matured in order to achieve a 40 x 40-foot spacing and reduce crowding to minimize yield loss. They have since decided to keep these trees in the original 40 x 20-foot pattern, but that means adjusting equipment designed for the wider rows to be used with the narrower row spacing.

Last year, they began hedging these trees on an every-other row basis. “We’ll give them a haircut on a cycle where we hedge a fourth, or maybe a third, of the acres each year,” Frank Paul says. “These trees have been producing well. We’ll know much better how this wide spacing may affect production in the next year or two when the trees are 15 years old.”

Dealing with today’s economics continues to be a challenge. One way the Salopeks are containing costs is by using a four-wheel ATV instead of a tractor for spraying weeds in their orchards.

“It’s faster; it saves wear and tear on a high-dollar machine; it reduces soil compaction, and it allows us to get in the orchards when the ground is wetter,” Frank Paul explains.

The ATV pulls a 100-gallon sprayer on a trailer with 14-foot booms on either side to apply herbicides in orchards with the 30 x 30-foot spacing. For trees planted in the 20-foot wide rows, Frank Paul closes one side of the boom and, running in the same direction as his harvester, makes two trips down the row, with the second pass overlapping part of the first treatment.

TAGS: Tree Nuts
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