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Pecans, the Mesilla Valley and the Newberry Ranch
By Virginia A. Taylor
John W. Newberry arrived in the Las Cruces region in c. 1912, and by 1917 started a farm that would later be instrumental in the early promotion of pecan culture in the Mesilla Valley. Born John Wesley Newberry in July 4, 1879, in Greene County, Tennessee, Newberry descended from English origin of ancestors who originally settled in New England. Newberry came from a farming background, with his grandfather and father both farmers, and naturally pursued the livelihood, enrolling in Tusculum College in Grenville, Tennessee, where he pursued a two-year degree in applied agriculture.
After receiving his degree, Newberry traveled West and went to work for the Contract Machine Shop in Denver. There he learned the machinist trade, which led him to Los Angeles where he took a position in the engine room of a passenger ship, spending a year on the Pacific making voyages between Los Angles and Honolulu and San Francisco and Panama. From the Pacific Coast, Newberry moved to Oklahoma, and then to Eastern New Mexico, claiming a homestead north of Clovis, where he worked at the Santa Fe Railway shop. Newberry continued his work with the railroad as a machinist, later transferring to the Santa Fe Railway shop in Albuquerque, and eventually to the roundhouse in Amarillo, becoming foreman of its operations.
Like many others, Newberry was attracted to the Mesilla Valley by the massive promotion of the Valley as a haven for health and homesteaders, with the promise that the Elephant Butte Dam, then the largest reservoir in the world, would turn its fertile soil into an agricultural Eden. In 1912, Newberry traveled to Las Cruces to inspect some land for sale west of the Rio Grande, near the old village of Picacho. In order to see the land, Newberry had to ford the Rio Grande, which at that time was not bridged. He later returned to buy the parcel, which lay within the original Mesilla Civil Colony Grant. Newberry did not settle the farm until 1917, after the completion of the Elephant Butte Dam. That year Newberry returned with a team of mules and a wagon purchased from the U.S. Army in Columbus, New Mexico.
With his mules and the assistance of local Mexican-American laborers, the heavily mesquite covered land was cleared and leveled. Tapping into the lateral, Newberry and his help created ditches to divert water into the newly cleared fields. Newberry began with irrigated alfalfa, beans and corn. At first alfalfa proved to be an ideal crop, producing a ton to a ton-and-a-half of hay an acre every thirty to forty days.
Later diversification of farming, especially the concept of combining limited stock raising, truck farming, and small orchards became the ideal for the typical, small 40-acre farm of the Mesilla Valley. Diversifying the crop, Newberry experimented with pinto, bayo beans and corn, raising enough of the latter to feed his farm animals. By the mid-1920s, truck crops, including cantaloupe, cabbage, and sweet potatoes were raised on the farm. Newberry then excelled in peach growing, and was noted in the local paper for his “mammoth” peaches and later won second place in 1940 for his entry of peaches in national Stark-Burbank Institute of Horticulture New Fruit Show. Following the introduction of cash crop cotton farming in the 1920s, Newberry planted some of his acreage in the crop, but continued to focus on diversified farming.
Because of his consuming interest in agriculture and the Mesilla Valley, Newberry held many offices over the years in farm-related organizations, including President of the New Mexico and Crop Improvement Association; Director of the Board of Southwestern Irrigate Cotton Growers Association; President of the Picacho Cooperative Gin; and the Picacho Farm Bureau.
The Pecan Era
Although pecan cultivation in southern New Mexico would come to be dominated by that of Deane Stahmann and his “world’s largest” pecan farm, John Newberry is generally attributed as the first to commercially propagate and promote pecans in the region.
In 1915, Fabian Garcia, a professor at New Mexico State College, then known as New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, began experimenting with growing pecan trees in the Mesilla Valley. A member of the college’s first graduating class in 1894, Garcia earned his doctorate in agriculture from the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in 1926. As director of the school’s Agricultural Experiment Station and Extension Service from 1913 to 1945, Garcia was the first Hispanic in the country to lead a land-grant agricultural research station. His work included introducing the first modern chili variety into the Valley in 1921, and laying the groundwork for the commercial cultivation of onion, cotton, and pecans in the Mesilla Valley.
Not native to New Mexico, the pecan was introduced to southern New Mexico from Texas and north-central Mexico in the late 1880s. Indigenous to the alluvial soils of the lower Mississippi River, Garcia understood from its success in Texas, that varietal pecan culture would be ideally suitable to the rich bottomlands of the Rio Grande of the Mesilla Valley. Garcia began his experimentation in 1916 with a four-acre planting at the university’s agricultural research station, now the Fabian Garcia Agricultural Center of New Mexico State University. Through his experimentation, Garcia found several varieties suitable for the Valley, and began promoting the crop as a good source of income and shade.
Intrigued with the idea of developing a pecan market in the Valley, Newberry contacted Fabian Garcia in 1925, requesting samples of pecan varieties that had proved successful at the experiment station. Garcia in return sent Newberry seeds of the College No.1 and the Texas Prolific orchard varieties, which Newberry planted along the ditch berms and behind the farmhouse.
Pecan production evolved slowly over the ensuing decades as cotton continued to dominate the market until the 1940s. The cost of labor during the mid-1920s and early 1930s also contributed to the slow rise of the pecan as a cash crop. However, with restrictions placed on cotton acreage as a result of a surplus during the Depression, farmers in the Mesilla Valley searched desperately for a replacement crop. Of the many crops considered, pecans offered the advantage in that they could be gradually introduced to fields that were still producing cotton. This phenomena was observed by correspondent Ernie Pyle, who wrote, “These pecan trees are planted right out in the cotton fields, and the cotton keeps growing…So Stahmann keeps getting his cotton income while the trees are growing up.”
The first large-scale planting of pecans began with Deanne F. Stahmann, who in 1934 planted a 30-acre orchard on his Snow Ranch Farm south of Las Cruces. This would eventually evolve in the 1960s into the 3,600-acre Stahmann Farms, claimed the largest pecan orchard in the world. Reaching its highest recorded pound per production in 1949, pecan cultivation declined in the 1940s and 1950s, and became of interest only in the early 1960s, after local growers witnessed the profitable returns from Stahmann’s highly productive operation.
Loss of Diversified Farming
Following the introduction of highly profitable cash crops to the Valley, such as cotton, pecans, and chili, much of the earlier emphasis on diversified farming eroded during the 1940s and1950s. Reflecting this trend, Newberry in 1946 planted a 10-acre chili plot that produced well as cash income for a number of years. In declining health in the 1950s, much of his activity was curtailed and the farm leased to a tenant farmer who managed it until John Newberry died in 1971. With Newberry’s passing and the loss of the fruit orchards and the poultry and farm animals, the farm came to reflect the prevailing trend of cash crop farming in the Mesilla Valley.
The farm remained under the title of John and Rachel Newberry until 1976, when it was given to Ivan Scott Taylor and Virginia Ann Taylor, daughter of John Newberry. Ivan and Virginia Taylor continue to live on the farm, and in 1990 converted the former barn into their primary residence. The farm continues in full cultivation with a local tenant farmer using the fields to grow alfalfa, chili, lettuce, and silage corn. The pecan trees planted over 76 years ago still provide shade to the original farmhouse and shelter the fields and communicate the significance its association with John Newberry, one of the pioneers of pecan cultivation in the Mesilla Valley.
. Charles F. Coan. A History of New Mexico. The American Historical Society, 1925. 3v.: 74.
. Ibid., 75
3. “College Head Favors Diversified Farming Valley.” Rio Grande Farmer 8 Aug. 1923: 1.
. Esteban Herrera. “Historical Background of Pecan Plantings in the Western Region.” Guide H-626, PH 1-110. College of Agriculture and Home Economics, New Mexico State University. http://www.cahe.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/h-626.pdf: 1.
. Starting in 1920, figures for recorded production began at 623 pounds for that year, increasing to 3,543 pounds in 1929, 21, 1939, and several decades of decline reaching its highest level of production in 1990 with 50,000 pounds. Esteban Herrera. “Historical Background of Pecan Plantings in the Western Region.” Guide H-626, PH 1-110. College of Agriculture and Home Economics, New Mexico State University. http://www.cahe.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/h-626.pdf: 4.
. Edna Bouldin Colquit. “Cash Crop” New Mexico October 1940, Vol. 18, No 10.:13.
. Quoted in: Theresa M. Hanley. "The Stahmann Farms Migrant Community." M.A. thesis (Anthropology), New Mexico State University, 1991:31
Coan, Charles F. A History of New Mexico. The American Historical Society, 1925. 3 volumes.
“College Head Favors Diversified Farming Valley.” Rio Grande Farmer 8 Aug. 1923: 1.
Colquit, Edna Bouldin. “Cash Crop.” New Mexico October 1940, Vol. 18, No 10.: 12-13+.
“Elephant Butte Dam Furnishes Water to Irrigate Two Hundred Miles of Valleys.” Rio Grande Farmer 13 Dec. 1923: 1.
“Fine Pecan Trees Raised From Seed.” Rio Grande Farmer 29 Nov. 1923. n. pag.
Garcia, Fabian. “Nearly All Kinds of Fruits and Vegetables Can Be Profitably Grown In Valley.” Rio Grande Farmer 13 Dec. 1923: n. pag.
_____. Letter to John W. Newberry. 2 Feb. 1925. Personal collection Virginia A. Taylor.
Hanley, Theresa M. "The Stahmann Farms Migrant Community." M.A. thesis (Anthropology), New Mexico State University, 1991.
Hauter, L.H. and Byron Hunter. “Estimated Returns from Operating an 80-acre Mesilla Valley Farm Under Eight Different Plans in 1932.” Extension Circular 124, March 1933. Las Cruces, New Mexico: New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.
Herrera, Esteban. “Historical Background of Pecan Planting in the Western Region.” Guide H-626, PH 1-110. College of Agriculture and Home Economics, New Mexico State University. http://www.cahe.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/h-626.pdf
Koranik, Mike. “Pecan Production in the Mesilla Valley.” Las Cruces Oral History Society 2 Nov. 1995.
“Mammoth Peaches Grown in Picacho.” Rio Grande Farmer 23 Aug. 1923: 1.
“Paper Shell Pecans May Become Major Crop Here in Few Years.” Las Cruces Daily 14 No. 1934, 1.
“Pecan Farmers Brace for Lower Return.” Santa Fe New Mexican 18 Nov. 2001:15.
“Planting of Pecan Trees Will Bring Pleasure and Profit to Householder.” Rio Grande Farmer 8 Nov. 1923: n. pag.
Stark, Paul. Letter to John W. Newberry. 28 Aug. 1940. Personal collection Virginia A. Taylor.
Stark, Paul. Letter to John W. Newberry. 22 Nov. 1940. Personal collection Virginia A. Taylor.
Wolf, August. “Publicity Campaign Carried on by Chamber of Commerce and Elephant Butte Irrigation District is Bringing Many Settlers to Aid in Rapid Development of Valley Farms.” Rio Grande Farmer 14 Dec. 1922: n. pag.
Essay taken from "Newberry Farm," New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties, March 2002.(c)