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Pecan farmers reap high prices

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP)--Dona Ana County pecan farmers are receiving the highest-ever price for their crop, with the in-shell, per-pound price pushing $3 in New Mexico.

Jim Brueggen, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's statistical service in New Mexico, said the previous record was an average price of $2.28 per in-shell pound in 2004.

New Mexico Department of Agriculture pecan marketing specialist James Ditmore said the record prices are resulting from a couple of factors: continued strong demand from China combined with an overall low supply year.

"It's historic level pricing, and it's a wonderful thing for the pecan growers in the state of New Mexico,'' Ditmore said.

Grower Dick Salopek, whose farm is just north of Las Cruces, said while prices are good he's concerned that higher costs might turn away consumers eventually.

"I think it's way too high, but I'm not going to turn down the check,'' he said.

Salopek pointed out the industry has seen bad years, too, such as 2001 when growers received 71 cents per pound.

The market for pecans in China was very small about a decade ago but the nut has become a delicacy, used in that country's New Year celebration, causing demand to spike.

Demand from Chinese buyers caused New Mexico pecan prices to unexpectedly shoot higher last season.

Brueggen noted the price spike is similar to what occurred in the U.S. wheat market in the 1970s, when Russia made sizable purchases of that crop.

This year, Ditmore said, China bought heavily in Georgia's pecan market, where the harvest occurs earlier than in New Mexico. New Mexico growers will sell some of their crop to China, though it likely will be less than in past years.

Pecan trees across the nation tend to produce a heavy crop one year and a light crop the next, known as an "off'' production year. This year is an "off'' year for most orchards.

A federal forecast in early October estimated about 56 million pounds of in-shell pecans will be harvested in New Mexico. In the last "off'' year, 2008, the state's crop totaled about 43 million pounds.

Harvesting began in Dona Ana County around Thanksgiving, when a hard freeze killed leaves and pecan husks, a precursor for most farmers to start.

New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service specialist Richard Heerema said the freeze was well-timed and there hasn't been any rain to keep farmers from moving equipment through orchards.

"The weather has been really ideal,'' he said.

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