Pecan weevil has New Mexico authorities on guard

Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press
Phillip Arnold, president of the New Mexico pecan growers association, explains what pecan consumers should look for if they suspect they have a pecan weevil, during a press conference at San Saba Pecan on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017, on the quarantine of pecans coming into New Mexico along with thefts of pecans in the county.

An emergency quarantine aimed at stopping the spread of an invasive bug threatening New Mexico's pecan industry will remain in place as the state looks to protect the largest pecan-growing county in the United States, agriculture officials said Wednesday.

Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte said growers statewide produced an estimated $213 million in pecans last year, with most of that coming from orchards in Dona Ana County.

While the county is free of pecan weevils, Witte said officials want to make sure it stays that way by restricting the movement of in-shell pecans from other areas and requiring that they be treated through cold storage methods since freezing the nuts will kill the pests.

"We want to ensure that no accidents happen and Dona Ana County remains pecan weevil free," he said.

Pecans account for one of New Mexico's largest cash crops, with more than 2,000 farms around the state growing the nut-bearing trees. New Mexico is consistently among the country's top producing states, along with Georgia and Texas.

Because of the weevil's effect on production, the New Mexico Agriculture Department and the Western Pecan Growers Association have worked over the past four decades to prevent it from becoming established in the state.

It was determined last year that the small brown insect had spread from known areas of active eradication, which resulted in an emergency quarantine being imposed in January 2017. That temporary quarantine has been extended multiple times now, and the department reiterated on Dec. 20 that it's considering adopting permanent restrictions.

Jeff Witte, Secretary of Agriculture for New Mexico, opens up a press conference about the pecan weevil quarantine and the theft of pecans in Southern New Mexico, Wednesday Dec. 20, 2017 at San Saba Pecan. New Mexico agriculture officials say an emergency quarantine recently extended in hopes of stopping the spread of an invasive bug threatening the state's pecan industry will remain in place as they look to protect the largest pecan-growing county in the United States.

In its early stages, the weevil is known for a distinctive red head on a grub-like body. Larvae feed on the meat of the nuts and thus can ruin a crop.

Phillip Arnold, president of the New Mexico Pecan Growers Association, said an infestation would require growers to spray insecticides multiple times a year, resulting in costs and environmental effects that no one wants.

"Dona Ana County being one of the largest production areas in the world for pecans, it would be a major problem for us and would be very detrimental to the industry if we were to get it in here," Arnold said.

Along with the pressure of the pest problem, pecan growers have become the target of thieves looking to capitalize on the high price of nuts.

Numerous thefts have been reported throughout southern New Mexico's growing region, from buckets here and there from residential growers to truckloads worth tens of thousands of dollars from commercial operations.

Pecans are stored in large containers in the San Saba Pecan plant. A press conference was held Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017, at San Saba Pecan where the quarantine of pecans coming into New Mexico along with thefts of pecans in the county was discussed.

"It's become rampant. We're getting calls left and right," said County Sheriff Enrique "Kiki" Vigil. "It's happening during the daytime, not just the nighttime."

Some growers are considering installing infrared cameras to catch thieves, while county officials are talking about crafting an ordinance to address the increase in thefts.

Legislation that would allow for stiffer punishments for those convicted of agricultural theft is also possible, Witte said.

While many of the small thefts go unreported, Vigil said more than 5,000 pounds of nuts were stolen Tuesday from two locations.

On Arnold's farm, several hundred pounds were taken over the course of a week by thieves who were raking up nuts at night.

Under the quarantine, authorities say commercial pecan buyers are required to collect certain information from sellers to ensure the nuts are being treated if they come from infested areas.