Orchard invasion: Pecan weevil threatens to upend New Mexico's $180M industry
Dean Calvani's livelihood is threatened by a tiny invader.
The pecan weevil lives most of its life underground, but once a year it burrows to the surface to lay its eggs directly in the nut that defined Calvani's business for 25 years.
The weevil's reproduction destroys the nut meat, making it unfit for human consumption. And it could derail New Mexico's $180 million pecan industry.
In late 2016, and January 2017, the weevil was found in residential pecan orchards in multiple counties in southeast New Mexico. It was confirmed in Eddy, Lea, Chaves and Curry counties.
A series of quarantines were enacted to prevent its spread in the following months, and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture is looking to make them permanent.
One of Eddy County’s largest pecan producers, the Calvani Pecan Company has operated in the Carlsbad community for about 25 years. Calvani said he's worried the quarantine — which restricts pecan shipments to areas without an infestation — could prevent him from trading to the west where the industry is most lucrative.
"They won't even let us ship to El Paso anymore," he said of NMDA.
To go west, out of the quarantine zone, Calvani will have to incur added cost, purchasing forklifts, vans and redesigning his cleaning and shipment plants, as vehicles used to transport out of quarantine must be covered and shipments must be held to higher scrutiny.
He's unsure of the cost associated with meeting requirements to ship his product west, and uninterested in paying it.
Calvani said he's never found a weevil in the 500 acres comprising his orchards. Even so, the new regulations could force him to ship his product east and into West Texas where the weevil has a decades-long foothold.
Calvani cannot import from West Texas under the new guidelines, and must either rely on local growers or decide on another region to purchase from.
With a month until harvest, he worried his business could suffer.
"I hope they can eradicate it," Calvani said. "I think it's good they're becoming aware of it. The frustration is (NMDA) presented the quarantine a month before harvest. It didn't allow us to prepare."
About 80 miles north in Chaves County, growers also worried about the added costs.
Hoby Bonham, owner of the 600-acre Bonham Farms northwest of Roswell, said he supports the quarantine, but is concerned the added cost could put smaller operations at risk.
His family also co-owns Mountain States Pecan Co., a 900-acre operation in Roswell.
“It is an expense. I can’t speak for everybody. I don’t know where (all growers in the area) ship to or where they sell to,” he said. “There are more markets than just Las Cruces or El Paso County."
Bonham said he worked with about 10 other Chaves County growers to bring ideas to NMDA officials about the proposed quarantine.
But he said that he understands that NMDA has expressed its intent to move quickly to enact the permanent quarantine.
“I am happy that they are actually doing it. Nobody likes for more regulations and nobody likes for more government involvement," Bonham said. "But we stand a great chance of getting the pest eradicated and not let it continue to spread.
"We aren’t just trying to protect ourselves. We are trying to protect the industry itself in New Mexico."
In the state known as the second-highest producer of pecans, the tiny bug — thought to be invading from West Texas, a state where the vast majority of counties were under quarantine for decades — could also damage one of New Mexico's biggest cash crops.
A temporary quarantine for Artesia, Hobbs, Roswell and Clovis was first enacted in January until March, in response to findings of the pest in residential orchards.
It was then extended by 90 days until June, and then again until November.
Another 180-day quarantine is expected to go into effect on Nov. 20, as the department drafts a permanent ban.
Under the most recent quarantine, any pecans shipped out of Eddy, Lea, Curry and Chaves counties into areas unaffected by the weevil must face intense scrutiny and higher regulations.
These counties, where thousands of acres produce pecans each year, would remain quarantined until the weevil is proven to be completely eradicated.
Dona Aña County and the El Paso area to the west are particularly important to pecan growers and sellers, as the industry is mostly centered in that region.
But to sell in the west, where most of the industry exists, southeastern producers must follow the new requirements, such as providing proof of treatment, and transporting the nuts in a covered vehicle.
The aim is to stop the spread of the pest into the western regions of the state, which would further damage the multi-million-dollar industry.
Sandy Barraza, director of New Mexico State University's Chaves County Extension Office, said education could also be a weapon against the weevil.
She said commercial growers and entomologists are working to distribute literature and information in an effort to educate the public and obtain their help in keeping the pecan weevil from spreading.
“The pecan weevil does not affect the health of the tree," she said. "It only affects the pecans. Actually (growers) won’t know they have the weevil until the larvae chew its way out of the mature pecan, and it leaves a little BB-size hole, or if you crack open the pecan and see it has been destroyed.”
There were 2,000 pecan farms across the state in 2015, read a 2017 report from NMSU's College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
New Mexican growers produced $180 million in nuts, the report read, ranking the state first that year for pecan production with about 1/3 of the country’s yield.
“If pecan weevil becomes established in the state’s commercial orchards, it would cause increased insecticide applications, increased production costs, reduced on-farm revenue, and a perceived reduction in the state’s reputation for high-quality pecans,” read the report.
So the department called on all growers to check crops, even those nuts harvested from backyard trees, in hopes of finding and destroying the pest.
“Unless you carefully inspect your pecan nuts every year, both marketable and trash or cull nuts, you may not realize you are harboring this destructive pest,” the report read. “If you have even one pecan tree, even if it is in your yard and not an orchard, you are part of this industry.”
After this year's infestation was discovered, the NMDA decided New Mexico would be the last stand against the pecan weevil.
“This is where everyone fights it in New Mexico,” said Brad Lewis, NMDA assistant division director of Entomology and Nursery. “We’ve watched it march across Texas, and across the pecan belt."
Along the weevil's path of destruction, growers of all sizes could be impacted by an infestation, said John Wilson, a Chaves County-based pecan buyer and sheller for 20 years.
Sale of pecans could take a hit under the quarantine, he said, as people he buys from will have to provide photo identification and records about the origins of shipments.
”It is going to affect you if you are in the market, whether you have one tree or you are a big grower," Wilson said. “It will mean more cost for processing and for trucking and less value for producers.
“If we do this now and eradicate it, we will save the industry millions of dollars. But we need to catch it now.”
Shay Wagner, manager of Normex Farms southeast of Roswell, said stopping it might burden smaller growers, but won't be that much of a hardship on larger growers such Normex, which already has a cleaning facility.
The operation, where Wagner has worked for 10 years, has about 280 acres of pecan-producing trees.
"You are talking tens of thousands in additional costs and that would be just to control the pest. That's not counting lost revenues," he said.
The quarantine would be worth it to avoid infestation in commercial orchards, he said, given the time and challenge associated with safeguarding the industry.
"I knew it (the quarantine) was coming," Wagner said. "We had a temporary quarantine last year, and the eradication of this pest is probably going to take five to 10 years, maybe even longer, given the lifecycle of the insect."
The pecan weevil, a type of beetle, was known to infest southeast New Mexico for the past 10 years, Lewis said.
It is considered a “snout beetle” because of its long nose, and usually grows to about 3/8 to ½ inches in length.
The weevil is native to the Midwest and eastern parts of the United States, but researchers are unsure how it came to New Mexico.
Naturally camouflaged to blend into its environment, the weevil is considered the most destructive pest for pecans and hickory nuts.
The larvae are plump, legless and cream colored, with multiple body segments. They develop into grubs within the nut, and then burrow out and into the soil to finish maturing.
The adult weevil lives primarily underground, but burrows to the surface to mate and lay its eggs, up to six at a time, in the pecans of infested trees.
Residential orchards are most susceptible, because the land is often undisturbed by cultivation which is more commonly practiced in commercial groves.
As the larvae grows, it feeds on the nutmeat and leaves its indicative BB-sized hole in the shell when emerging from the nut.
In the summer, adult weevils also feed on the nuts, causing them to fall from the trees prematurely.
Emerging from the soil in late July, the adult weevil flies or crawls to potential host trees nearby.
Females use their longer snouts to feed on a liquid inside the nut called endosperm, damaging the nut and leaving a hole in the shell.
After mating, the female weevil insert eggs into up to 30 nuts, planting about 75 eggs during the one-month adult lifespan.
The eggs hatch inside the pecan after about a week, and the resulting larvae feeds heavily on the nutmeat.
Adult weevil can burrow up to three feet underground, and no soil treatments are known that could kill them once they leave the surface.
So, NMDA must spray.
The bug is only above ground for a short period each year, and is very difficult to find for chemical treatment, usually in the form of a spray that will only kill the adults, read an NMDA report.
The larvae is not affected by the spray.
Once the eggs are laid in the nut, it’s too late.
Thirty-two new findings of weevil infestations were made this year, during the last winter’s harvest season, said NMDA inspector Emily Fricke.
She estimated it could take about five to seven years to eradicate the pest, due to its lifespans and propensity for living underground.
The orchards must be sprayed during the short month-long periods when the adult weevil is above ground.
“They spend so much time underground,” Fricke said. “That’s what makes eradication so difficult. There’s a limited amount of time in their lifecycle that we can hit them with chemicals.”
It was eradicated before, Lewis said, and the pecan weevil can be eradicated again — this time for good.
“We’re the only ones who fought it, we’re the only ones who eradicated," he said. "There is a verbal agreement that New Mexico will be the stopping grounds for the Pecan Weevil.”
In Dona Aña County, the weevil was exterminated in 2000, after being found in a 25-acre block, Lewis said.
It can spread quickly, hopping off open-air trucks or contaminated crops when mixed.
The main purpose of the quarantine in the east is to prevent another outbreak in the west.
“Nothing moves into Dona Aña County unless it is approved here first,” Lewis said. “That’s what growers in Dona Aña County wanted to best protect them. The difference this time is that it’s so broad and so widespread, so we had to do what we’re doing. It’s at industry request.”
Aside from spraying for the bug at its source, the weevil is also killed using cold storage, when the nuts are kept in sub-zero temperatures for an extended amount of time.
This method kills the bug, but also adds costs.
Regardless of the method used, Calvani said controlling the pest is essential to the industry's stability across the southern portion of New Mexico.
"(The quarantine) is a good effort," he said. "I’m glad they’re trying to control it. We’ll just have to wait.”
But in the meantime, NMDA has inspectors going home to home, orchard to orchard, searching for an infestation.
Priority is given to residential properties outside of known infested areas within a quarantined city, aiming to identify areas of non-infestation to understand how widespread the problem might be.
“We’ll start beating it back in Artesia,” Lewis said. “We’re trying to keep it contained in this area. We’ll look at Lea County, and that’s a decision the industry will have to make. Do we keep beating it back to the Texas line?"
To move pecans out of these areas, shippers were required to pass an inspection and acquire a certificate from NMDA for each crop.
Any buyers receiving nuts not certified, and unproven to be safe from the weevil, were told to send them back.
Especially if they’re coming from Texas.
That entire state is under a quarantine, Lewis said, and no importation to New Mexico is allowed under current guidelines.
“When you go to a buyer or accumulator, you need to ask to see ID and prove that they aren’t coming from a contaminated area,” said Woods Houghton, Eddy County agriculture agent with NMSU's Eddy County Extension Office.
But what about sellers and buyers without any credentials?
At an October town hall meeting in Carlsbad between officials from the NMDA, NMSU and local pecan growers and buyers, many feared the weevil could be spread by human disregard for the law.
Roy and Dana Chapler, who’ve owned Carlsbad-based C&R Pecan for 38 years, said they’ve witnessed unlicensed buyers and sellers pull over to the side of a road — and set up shop.
The Chaplers said they've found the weevil in their own crop, and worry the pest's impact could get worse due to questionable business practices.
“You never know where these guys stop,” said Roy Chapler. “There’s no one out there to stop them.”
Unlicensed sales within the city are subject to penalties under the City of Carlsbad’s business licensing ordinance, which stipulates all business activity in the city limits be approved.
And even sellers that are licensed, and seem compliant, could be hiding the origin of the nuts.
“We don’t know they’re from Texas until we see a license plate or something,” said Dana Chapler. “Then we have to say ‘We can’t buy these.’ They get real offended when they can’t sell them here.”
Even worse, the spread of the weevil could expand through theft, transporting the nuts without any regulation or official record.
Calvani estimated he loses about 2,000 pounds of pecans each year to theft.
Some thieves drive directly into his orchards, lay out blankets and rake nuts onto them.
Others frequent the edges of an orchard, where long branches can cross fence lines.
Calvani said agricultural theft is not only disturbing but a real problem in the industry.
“It’s a different story, different situation every year,” he said. “Normally, I don’t get out of the truck. I don’t want to hear it. I just call the sheriff and let them deal with it.”
But regardless of the quarantine or any effort to curb the weevil's spread, Calvani said he believes the western part of the state will soon have its own orchard invasion to contend with.
“In the next five years, they’ll see it in the west,” he said of the pecan weevil. “It’s going to get there."
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Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.