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.

(6) comments

Karl Anderson

James Wilson:

"Yes every time the opportunists revise the temperature data in favor of warming (warming which hasn't occurred in 19 years), it becomes harder to deny. "

So, Mr. Wilson, you've heard or read somewhere that "warming hasn't occurred in 19 years", and that "the opportunists revise the temperature data in favor of warming". Why do you trust the source of your information, if you don't trust scientists?

"How dare anyone suggest the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars granted to GW researchers has anything to do with this blatant cheating. "

You may think of yourself as a "sceptic", but a genuine sceptic would wonder whether his information might be coming from people who have their own incentives to cheat. Do you think that the net revenue earned by fossil-fuel producers is greater or less than the "hundreds of millions of dollars granted to GW researchers"?

"SOP for progressives is to use false narratives to prove their causes."

The people who have the most to lose if fossil fuels are replaced with alternative energy sources have made AGW a political issue. Believe it or not, though, the working climate scientists who contribute to the case for AGW are Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats and independents. They are united by their knowledge that AGW will affect people all across the political spectrum. If you obtain your information directly from them rather than from politicians, mass media and politically-motivated bloggers, you'll get a clearer picture of the truth.

Jacob Barba

Sept 15-Oct 15 thats when the trees drop thier nuts.
Solar Flares are what determines the climate.We have been studying climate since last century.Computer models of climate changes are just that models.
Russsian scientist at the South Pole report that the ice pack is building up so much they have to move thier base staion.

Karl Anderson

Mr. Barba,

Those of us who aren't climate experts should get our information from the scientists who are. The US National Academy of Sciences, together with the British Royal Society, have published a 34-page booklet titled "Climate Change: Evidence and Causes". It's written for educated non-scientists, and is available for free at (remove spaces in the link first):

nas-sites.org/ americasclimatechoices/ more-resources-on-climate-change/ climate-change-evidence-and-causes/

It begins by saying "It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate", and goes on to address 20 common questions about anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, with answers summarizing the collected expertise of two of the world's most respected scientific societies. For example:

Q: "What role has the Sun played in climate change in recent decades?"
A: "The Sun provides the primary source of energy driving Earth’s climate system, but its variations have played very little role in the climate changes observed in recent decades."

For a more detailed explanation, and references to primary scientific sources, you can download and read the booklet yourself.

James Wilson

Yes every time the opportunists revise the temperature data in favor of warming (warming which hasn't occurred in 19 years), it becomes harder to deny. How dare anyone suggest the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars granted to GW researchers has anything to do with this blatant cheating. The integrity of government employees is beyond reproach. Why, just look at Los Alamos Labs, WIPP, the Secret Service, the IRS, the EPA, the Veteran's Administration, the TSA, James Clapper, et al. Why, they're all choirboys. No liars there. How dare I impugn?

It's very sad that a 115-day expedition to study this obvious warming had to be abandoned this summer, because too much arctic ice (the most in 20 years) kept the ship from getting there. Clearly, massive growth of arctic ice indicates a warming out-of-whack climate. QED. http://tinyurl.com/ocvc5fu

If you're looking for a noble, planet-saving cause to finance, try counseling sub-Saharan African women to have fewer than seven children. African fertility is a far greater disaster brewing than one one hundredth of one degree temperature rise every 20 years.

Karl Anderson

The article fails to mention that ongoing loss of our P-J forests is a sign of anthropogenic global warming. Droughts have always threatened our forests, but AGW made the recent piñon die-off worse than it would have been otherwise. That's shown by peer-reviewed research published by the US National Academy of Sciences (www.pnas.org/content/102/42/15144).

Compared to the drought of the 1950s, the recent drought killed more piñons over wider areas, at higher and moister sites. Precipitation was actually slightly higher in 2000-2003 than it was during 1953-1956; however, both maximum and minimum annual temperatures were significantly higher during 2000-2003.

While the immediate cause of tree death during the recent drought was attack by bark beetles, warming was the ultimate cause. Subsequent research (www.pnas.org/content/106/17/7063) explains why. Piñones resist constant, low-level beetle attack by engulfing attacking beetles in pitch, which uses energy. They survive drought by shutting down photosynthesis to reduce water loss, relying on stored energy both to live on and to make pitch. During the recent drought, higher minimum temperatures allowed more beetles to live through the winters; and higher warm-season temperatures forced the trees to use up their stored energy faster, leaving them less able to resist the beetles.

AGW will make piñon nuts increasingly scarce in the coming decades. Why did Ms Wright ignore that in her article? The failure of journalists to report scientific findings like these is a major reason so many Americans are still in denial about AGW.

James Wilson

The global warming crisis is so dire it was important to repeatedly revise historical temperature data in order to prove its existence. SOP for progressives is to use false narratives to prove their causes. False means "lies", but hey, if they still point out obvious truths, man . . . Global warming proven. And Russia started the war in Ukraine, not the U.S. overthrowing the duly elected president Yanukovych when he turned down a European loan package in favor of a better one from Moscow. In a rare honest moment, Obama even acknowledged our role. But everything is expunged by the modern media, unconcerned with facts and obsessed with political advocacy. Wikipedia has now been scrubbed and rewritten to follow the narrative. Google executives get more time with the president than the entirety of Congress. Why? Our liberal schools have left generations addled and unable to, and uninterested in, looking beyond what their friends "like" on the Internet, or being serious about anything other than a 4" glowing screen 2 feet from their face. But all will immediately cheer for battling the chimera of AGW, because, duh. Cause, global warming's a drag, man. And states' rights means racism. That sucks man. Wait, states' rights means legal pot? States' rights rules! (What do we "like" next?)

I'm not sure we can believe anything we see on the nightly news, at this point. And I no longer believe in the oracle of government scientists and what they're peddling.

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