Its harvest from forested areas is unpredictable, and no one keeps formal tabs on the crop’s quantity and quality, but given a respite from an extended drought, 2015 and 2016 look to be banner years for the prized New Mexico piñon nut.

While it’s coveted by chefs worldwide for its rich, buttery flavor, the piñon nut has also been long-cherished as a staple and cash crop for traditional New Mexicans. It appears in good to above-average quantities every two to five years if dry climate conditions don’t interfere.

For many, such as Joyce Begay-Foss, director of the Living Traditions Education Center at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, piñon nuts are a both a delicacy and a source of nostalgia.

Begay-Foss said her relatives from the Navajo Nation travel throughout New Mexico and Arizona to pick piñon by arranging blankets around the tree bases before shaking loose the shells and gathering them by hand.

“You have to be careful when you’re picking,” she said, “because it’s easy to disturb nests of mice and pack rats,” two of many animal species, including black bears and the threatened pinyon jay bird, that include the nuts in their diet.

“Traditionally, we just eat them by the handful,” Begay-Foss said, after washing the shells in hot water and roasting the nuts inside. For American Indians throughout the Southwest, piñon served as a trade commodity like wool, she said. Today, it’s still used to supplement household incomes in many Native and Hispanic households throughout the state.

Staff at the New Mexico Department of Agriculture said the agency doesn’t track piñon crops in statistical tallies of farm products. But David Cuneo, owner of the New Mexico Piñon Nut Co., said there hasn’t been a great crop since 2005. This year is markedly different, he said.

“El Niño worked in our favor, and I think [the harvest] is going to be pretty good. I’ve seen good cones around Santa Fe, and along a stretch of [Interstate 40] from Clines Corners all the way to Santa Rosa — a huge area.”

Cuneo said his company used to sell the nuts wholesale, “back when that was viable. That’s not such a viable business any more, ever since the bark beetle die-off.” The beetles decimated piñon trees across the Southwest about a decade ago.

Huge swaths of piñon-juniper forests throughout New Mexico and Arizona have been carved out by drought, insects and wildfires during the last 20 years.

“We lost 10 to 20 percent of the piñon production throughout the four-state area — Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico,” Cuneo said. “It was pretty devastating. Being that there’s so much less [piñon] every year, it just made sense for us to switch to a more retail focus.”

Last year, nut-hounds expected to see a decent crop, Cuneo said, “but the funny thing about piñon is that you never know what’s inside them until the cones open up. A few areas that were supposed to produce last year wound up having vanos, which means empty shells. It was actually a small crop. I don’t think that’s going to happen this year, but again, you never know.”

James Youtz, the southwestern regional silviculturist at the U.S. Forest Service, said that based on observations in the Carson National Forest around Taos and the eastern mountain ranges of the Cibola National Forest, piñon cones are showing development ranging from above-average to “very heavy.”

He explained that normal variations in piñon crops are related to tree physiology. “The trees use a lot of energy to produce the nuts.” Most nut production is actually the result of previous spring and winter precipitation, not simply the kind of summer moisture much of the state is seeing now, he said.

“Piñon cones develop far ahead of summer, so right now, the trees’ immature cones are already … forming next year’s crop.”

Youtz cautioned that, even if those immature cone crops continue to develop, a drop in winter and spring moisture could cause them to fail.

Mercurial qualities of the piñon make it nearly impossible to cultivate commercially like other nuts, such as the pecan, Cuneo said. “Pecan trees are going to produce every year, but if you plant piñon, they won’t. It’s the nature of that beast. It’s adapted to the desert climate, and it saves its energy until it feels it’s worth it to produce.”

As a result, a five- to 10-mile patch of forest outside of Questa might see a good crop during peak season at the end of September through early October, while another area near Albuquerque might be the prime spot the next year.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this year is going to be the most decent-sized crop or better than we’ve seen in three years.”

Naturalist Euell Gibbons described the piñon as the most edible of all wild foods, Cuneo said. Even when the price of piñon soars as it has in recent years, Cuneo still sees a steady stream of business.

“Why? Because someone remembers camping with their family as a kid and grandpa and dad hiking into the woods, throwing down a blanket, gathering a year’s worth of piñon.”

Piñon nut crops can vary from area to area, said Andrew Frederick, the state’s timber management officer, who recommended that people contact their U.S. Forest Service District Office to see if local reports are available for the surrounding federal public lands, as well as current road conditions and any current restrictions.

A list of the offices and their contact information can be found at http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/r3/about-region/offices.

Contact Margaret Wright at 986-3011 or mwright@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @MargaretWrite.