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New Mexico State University

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NMSU researchers want to use satellites to help pecan growers

Satellites can easily watch as pecan trees grow their leaves in the spring and as they lose those leaves in the fall. What's difficult is using satellites to figure out exactly how healthy those trees are during that time in between. Now, New Mexico State University researchers are working on the problem, and say figuring it out could help growers make more money.

Soil physicist Manoj Shukla, left, examines a data recorder while professors Richard Heerema and Rolston St. Hilaire collect pecan tree leaf samples from atop a solar-powered data collection tower located at Leyendecker Plant Science Center. (NMSU Photo by Darren Phillips)

"Pecans are hugely important in the state and the region," said Richard Heerema, NMSU's Extension pecan specialist. New Mexico is routinely one of the top pecan-producing states in the country, and the number of pecan acres in the state increases each year.

Heerema is part of a team at NMSU that won a nearly $870,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crops Research Initiative. They plan to study various aspects of pecan trees and how the data they gather correlates to satellite imagery. The team from NMSU also will work with partners at the University of California-Davis and Texas A&M University to study other trees such as almonds and walnuts.

"This research fits very well with us," said Rolston St. Hilaire, a professor at NMSU's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. "We were already working on many of these areas. This just adds another level to our ongoing research."

St. Hilaire said satellites take photos using visual, infrared and other bands of light all the time. Unfortunately, it's difficult for researchers to use those satellite images to know whether trees are stressed from a lack of water or nutrients.

NMSU's work will focus on nitrogen and water modeling in orchards as well as validating water use and conducting educational outreach so that growers have the best information. In the end, researchers hope to be able to tell growers exactly when specific orchards need to be irrigated and fertilized.

Towers have already been constructed in two pecan orchards near Las Cruces to record air temperature, relative humidity and other information. The NMSU team will use hand-held instruments as well as some placed in the ground to gather additional data, including water movement through the orchard and the rate at which the trees turn sunlight into energy. St. Hilaire said the trick will be to seamlessly integrate the data from the root level, the leaf level, the tree canopy level and at the orchard level.

"This is probably one of the more exciting projects I've seen because of the potential to use real-time data for a specific orchard. This will allow a grower to make decisions based on data from his or her orchard," Heerema said.

Other NMSU professors working on the project include Manoj Shukla, Ted Sammis and John Mexal, each from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.