Diverse crops lead to success

Grapes are picked and dumped into bins to be taken to the winery.
Photos by Nancy Riggs, unless otherwise noted.

Growing crops in the southern New Mexico desert requires a special affinity with desert conditions of heat, drought and unique soil conditions. Growing crops as diverse as pistachios and grapes sounds especially daunting, but at McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch and Arena Blanca Winery in Alamogordo, N.M., growing the two crops works well for owner Tim McGinn. Grape picking is complete about the first of September, just in time to start the pistachio harvest.

Arena Blanca is Spanish for white sand, and Arena Blanca Winery takes its name from the glistening white sands of nearby White Sands National Monument. In addition to the orchard production of about 150,000 pounds of pistachios from 12,000 trees and the 35 tons of grapes from 6,500 vines, McGinn’s operation includes an on-farm retail store and two additional retail sites.

Establishing the diverse crops didn’t happen by accident. Focus on commercial wine production in the tourism industry increased after the 1978 rebirth of New Mexico’s commercial grape production. That focus on local wine spurred inquiries from tourists about wine at the on-farm McGinn’s Country Store. McGinn’s father, Thomas McGinn, was interested in wine production, and his keen sense of identifying products with high profit potential led to his growing grapes commercially and producing award-winning wine. A second McGinn’s Country Store was opened in 2003 on a major tourist route at Cloudcroft, and a third store was opened in 2008 on Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo.

Establishing and expanding both crops required extensive research. “Pistachios and grapes weren’t talked about when we started like they are now,” McGinn said. Most of the information available initially was from California research.

Tim McGinn discusses different varieties of grapes grown.

Pistachios came first

McGinn said, “My father decided at age 49 he wanted to be a farmer. He was a plant manager for Thomas’ English Muffins in New Jersey, but as a young man, he had managed a banana plantation for Chiquita Banana in Central America. He started looking for a high-profit crop. His uncle was living here in Alamogordo, and he learned that some pistachio trees had been planted, so that’s what he decided to do.”

The elder McGinn, who passed away in 2007, planted 2,300 pistachio trees in 1978, and the McGinn family moved from New Jersey to New Mexico in 1980. Otero County had three pistachio orchards when McGinn’s was established. While Otero County pistachio production still represents only a fraction of the U.S. pistachio production, with 98 percent of the pistachios produced in California, the county has about 30 orchards today that range in size from 100 trees to about 12,000.

McGinn said, “Pistachio trees are very different from most other nut trees. They’re smaller, only about 15 to 20 feet tall, so we can plant more trees on an acre. They’re easier to prune—they can be pruned from the ground.”

Harvesting begins in September and is done with a Kilby harvesting machine that shakes the trees, allowing the pistachios to fall into bins. The pistachios are taken to the plant, where a Magnuson dehulling machine removes the hull. The pistachios are then roasted and flavored with various spices, including the popular New Mexico chile flavoring, and packaged for sale.

McGinn’s is completely self-contained, from growing both pistachios and grapes to packaging, processing and retail and wholesale selling. McGinn’s pistachios are packaged and sold, with about 75 percent sold retail. The other 25 percent of is sold wholesale and marketed in stores in New Mexico, Texas and Colorado carrying McGinn’s label.

Irrigation water crucial to desert growing

Irrigation water is the lifeblood of desert growing. McGinn said, “It’s particularly good for pistachio trees here, because we’re about 200 feet from water. We don’t want the roots to be wet all the time, so the 200 feet of drainage is good.”

The office of the state engineer adjudicates all surface and groundwater in New Mexico. McGinn’s irrigation water is pumped from on-farm wells. McGinn’s farm lies in the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico, a closed basin, which means that no streams flow out of the basin. McGinn said, “Since about 1985, anyone trying to get a commercial well has had to prove that there is enough water available for all area needs. In 30 years, the aquifer has not fluctuated more than 20 feet.”

Tim McGinn explains young pistachio tree progress to visitors.

Micro irrigation is used and begins about mid-March. Water is pumped into 6 and 4-inch underground irrigation lines that carry the water to the fields, where it moves into 1-inch poly tubing by NuMex Plastics. Framejet emitters that can dispense water at a rate of about 11 gallons an hour in an 8-foot radius are in place for each tree. McGinn’s local irrigation supplier is Sierra Irrigation in Las Cruces.

The pH levels are often concerns on New Mexico soils. “We don’t have much topsoil with nutrients in it. We add basic nutrients through our irrigation in an acid-based solution that helps neutralize the soil,” McGinn said.

“We run the irrigation 12 hours every four or five days in the heat of summer,” McGinn said. Irrigation starts about March 15 on a less frequent schedule and is gradually increased to peak time during summer. Irrigation is continued on a less frequent schedule until October 1.

Growing grapes for commercial wine production

According to a New Mexico wine production history published by New Mexico State University, New Mexico’s grape growing began as a venture of Spanish monks who smuggled grapevines into New Mexico to produce sacramental wine as they brought Christianity to areas along the El Camino Real. The Spanish trail is roughly paralleled today by Interstate 25 from southern New Mexico to Santa Fe. Despite Spanish law that prohibited export of grapevines to protect Spain’s wine industry, the effort was undertaken primarily to avoid the long and cumbersome transport of wine from Spain. By the 1880s, New Mexico grapes were well-established with New Mexico ranking fifth in grape wine production.

Third-generation McGinn, Tim and Clarissa’s son, Thomas, 10, is starting to help with grape production.
Photo Courtesy of McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch & Arena Blanca Winery.

Extensive flooding of southern New Mexico vineyards, along with Prohibition, brought about a major decline in New Mexico’s commercial winemaking. Commercial vineyards began making a comeback in 1978, and interest in commercial grape production and winemaking has continued to grow. New Mexico State University added a viticulture specialist a few years ago.

McGinn’s father had grown about 500 grape vines for personal wine production on his Alamogordo farm. “We had a hodgepodge of varieties,” McGinn said. About 2,500 grapevines were planted on McGinn’s farm in spring 1996, and the first crop was picked in 2000. At the start, McGinn’s father brought in three wines from a friend’s vineyard to supplement his offerings. McGinn said, “Today, we sell 18 wines, and we still sell their three varieties of La Luz red, sangria and a strawberry-flavored wine.”

Steady growth

“Every year we planted more vines,” McGinn said. Seven grape varieties of both red and white are grown on about 6,500 grape- vines on 13 acres.

Irrigation water is carried to the grapes in the same underground irrigation lines and 1-inch tubing that serve the orchards. “We use Roberts drippers that are suspended for the grapes,” McGinn said. The grapes are irrigated throughout the growing season, with an increasing frequency in peak summer heat similar to the increasing frequency of the orchard irrigation.

Grape picking starts about mid-July. Exact picking time for each variety is determined by the sugar content. Grapes are from several locations in a field and taken to the processing building where the sugar content is calibrated by using a refractometer. About 10 days are required to pick each variety.

McGinn has about 15 employees. Pruning is done in January and February.

“Everybody helps with picking,” McGinn said. Additional pickers are drawn primarily from among local high school students. “They start at 6 a.m., and stop about noon,” McGinn. “It gets very hot by that time.” Hot, dry summers are the norm in southern New Mexico, where the altitude is about 4,000 feet and summer daytime temperatures are normally around 100.

Pistachios are harvested with Kilby harvesting machine.
Courtesy of McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch & Arena Blanca Winery.

Grapes are taken to the winery immediately after picking, where they are destemmed, and the must is pressed. The juice is chilled down to 50 degrees, and the various wines are produced. Except for the three wines McGinn’s father started using from a friend’s vineyard, wine sold under McGinn’s label is normally produced from grapes grown in McGinn’s vineyard.

McGinn said, “Occasionally I’ll bring in one from a friend’s vineyard. I’m bringing in a Shiraz now.”

Promoting agricultural interests

McGinn is a member of the Western Pistachio Association, and the New Mexico Wine Growers Association where he was previously a board member. He earned a business degree at New Mexico State University and is a former Otero County Commission member.

His wife, Clarissa McGinn, works full-time in the operation, and she was elected to the Otero County Commission at the expiration of McGinn’s term.

“It’s important for agriculture to be represented on the commission,” McGinn said.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Growing. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.