One of the really enjoyable things about traveling
is being able to sample the local cuisine. Be it a type of local
cooking or a fruit, vegetable or nut grown locally, Bob and I
enjoy tasting it all. Now don't get me wrong, there are things
that even we won't try, but these are really few and far between.
When we were staying in Alamogordo, NM, we found out that only
southern California and a small part of New Mexico and Mexico
have a proper climate for this sensitive nut tree. With our
curiosity and taste-buds peaked we went to one of the local
pistachio farms in the area; the Eagle Ranch. After visiting
their visitor/shop area, we signed up for a tour of the
facilities. We found out that this was a family farm owned and
operated by George and Marianne Schweers.
The Eagle Ranch is truly a story of American ingenuity and perseverance. George Schweers was an Air Force officer stationed at Holloman AFB in 1969. He remained at Holloman until his retirement from the Air Force in 1979. Growing up in rural Nebraska it was his and his wife, Marianne's goal to return to agriculture. George's strategy was to begin the project which would enable his return to agriculture five years prior to retirement.
In the early 1970's the family began to search for a crop they could grow in desert conditions. After some work on their own and buying some 400 trees from a man who was employed as a contractor at Holloman AFB they settled on pistachio trees as their primary crop.
The first five years, the farming was done by George and Marianne and their three children, Gordon, Laura and Jean. The work was done after work, after school, and on weekends. Their first expansion was done with the help of Gordon's baseball team.
Each subsequent expansion brought its own set of challenges. Being the only grove in New Mexico, there was no support industry for harvesting or processing. As a result they had to develop their own processing operation or truck the nuts out of state for processing. Fabricating equipment, trucking nuts for salting and roasting, were all ongoing projects in the early years. The goal for Eagle Ranch was to evolve into a fully integrated agribusiness. This was Accomplished in 1988 when the salting and roasting plant was built.
The farm now contains 85 acres of groves, which is approximately 12,000 trees with spacing from 17' x 17' to 24' X 24" or 125 trees per acre. We found out that in order for the trees to propagate there must be a certain number of male trees for so many female trees. The trees are actually hybrid grafted specimens, a combination of a hardy stem and root system of an unspectacularly producing tree with a weaker, more abundant species. There are male and female trees and pollination is a product of the wind, not insects.
It was interesting to go through the plant and see how the pistachios are shelled, separated, and roasted. Such things as salters and roasters were all constructed by hand as were the buildings that housed them. When we arrived, we were introduced to Leo who took some time to take us around and explain how some of the machinery worked. The nuts ripen in September and there is a machine that shakes the tree, allowing the nuts to fall into a skirt for collecting. One time per tree, what's left is disregarded. The nuts are then passed through a half dozen different machines, each effecting it in some way, pushing it toward its' final destination in a burlap bag on a counter somewhere. Only the best of the nuts are packaged to be sold to customers. Many of the broken nuts are cooked into various products sold in the store. A good many of the machines that are used in the operation were developed by the Schweers for their own personal needs. Today the operation is completely self-sufficient from the growing and harvesting of the nuts to the roasting and selling. A good percentage of their crops are sent out by UPS to other parts of the country. New Mexico only produces a small amount of the pistachios consumed in the US with California having the largest percentage.
After touring the facilities we felt it was only right that we had to sample many of the various pistachio products they had on sale at the gift shop. In addition to raw nutmeats, you could buy roasted, or roasted with different flavorings on them. Then there were the many different products that feature pistachios, such as; pistachio cookies, pistachio crunch, pistachio cluster, pistachio bark, pistachio brittle, pistachio cranberry biscotti, and last, but by no means least, pistachio Baklava. We did manage to sample some of each and I can tell you they are all delicious. If you are interested in ordering any of the above check out their website at: http://www.eagleranchpistachios.com or give them a call at: 1-800-432-0999 for a catalogue.