ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - New Mexico's pecan farmers have reason to go nuts: For the first time, the state ranks as the No. 1 producer of pecans in the country, beating out Georgia and Texas, who typically rank at the top but had to battle erratic weather last year.

New Mexico produced about 46 million pounds of pecans in 2006. Georgia came in at 40 million pounds followed by Texas with 36 million pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The ranking is especially good news for New Mexico's agriculture industry - which is known more for its robust chili crop than nuts - since pecans have maintained their profitability and worldwide demand is on the rise, said Phillip Arnold, president of the Western Pecan Growers Association.

"There's a sense of pride about (being the top producer). Pecans have been one of the bright spots in New Mexico agriculture," Arnold said. "We've been an obscure state and we're known for our chili, but pecans have also been a big part of the Mesilla Valley."

About 70 percent of all pecans produced in the state are grown in the Mesilla Valley along the Rio Grande corridor in the southern part of the state, where the river provides essential irrigation water, said Richard Heerema, extension pecan specialist with New Mexico State University.

The U.S. produced 188.9 million pounds of pecans in 2006 from the "pecan belt" - a 15-state growing region located in the southeastern and southwestern part of the country. New Mexico's crop accounted for 24 percent of the total production with a worth of $85.1 million, said Tom Stevenson, president of the National Pecan Growers Council in Albany, Ga.

Heerema said New Mexico's pecan success can be attributed to the state's most abundant commodity: sunshine.

"Sunlight is a major, major factor. We just have more sunlight than the other places do," he said.

The state's in-shell pecans sold for $1.85 per pound in 2006 - a high market price - due to superior quality. Heerema said quality is higher because New Mexico grows only variety pecans, primarily the Western Schley.

"Pecans are a native crop and along the Mississippi River, the prime growers are ranchers who have wild pecan trees growing on their property and the nuts are really, really small," he said. "In New Mexico, we only grow variety pecans, and there's a price differential because the processors will pay for a larger pecan."

Insect damage is also less of a problem in New Mexico, where management techniques have allowed growers to steer fairly clear of crop pests - including the pecan weevil, pecan aphids and the pecan nut casebearer - that can eat into production.

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Pecan farming in New Mexico began in the early 1930s when the Stahmann family started a commercial-scale orchard in the Mesilla Valley desert. The industry flourished, and the Stahmann family now lays claim to the largest pecan orchard in the world and led the way for future pecan farmers in the West, Arnold said.

Arnold, who operates the Arnold Brothers Farm with his family, said the change to pecans for many farmers was risky, since it can take nearly a decade before the trees turn a profit.

"During the late 1960s and 70s, a lot of farmers started changing over to pecans," Arnold said. "As a farmer, when you plant, say, cotton, chili or corn, if you have a bad year, you can just go plant something else and hopefully you'll find something better.

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"But once you get into pecans, you're kind of stuck - you live and die in the pecan business," said Arnold, 51, with a chuckle.

Pecan farming in the West is almost entirely dependent upon irrigation, which makes crops less dependent on the unpredictability of rainfall. Hurricanes in Georgia and drought in Texas took their toll on output in 2006 - factors Western farmers rarely have to face, Stevenson said.

"The Western growers in the U.S., in terms of production, are the larger producers. That's held for years because…you can produce more (pecans) per acre in the West," Stevenson said.

New Mexico trees produce more pecans per acre than other trees and acreage in the Mesilla Valley has grown more than 500 percent since the 1970s, Heerema said.

Pecans also have gained more attention as a health food, Heerema said. In the 1970s and 80s, it was considered bad to eat any type of fat and people steered away from eating nuts. But in the 1990s, health studies indicated the fat in nuts are beneficial, he said.

"Pecans have the same fat as olives. Pecans have a higher level of mono-and polyunsaturated fats which can aid in the reduction of bad cholesterol," Heerema said.

Arnold, who also serves as vice president for the New Mexico Pecan Growers Association, said the export market for pecans has stretched into Europe and China mainly due to the nut's health benefits.

"The market has transitioned from the pecan being a fattening-type food and a dessert food to a very healthy food. Most people tend to think of pecan pies, cakes and sweets, but now you're starting to see (pecans) showing up in salads…and dishes like pecan-encrusted salmon and halibut. We're seeing more of that mainstream," he said.

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