By Jeanette Torres, NM WRRI Program Coordinator
For this month’s Meet the Researcher, we had the opportunity to interview Richard Heerema, an Extension Pecan and Pistachio Specialist for New Mexico State University (NMSU) Extension Plant Sciences (hired 2005), and Professor (promoted in 2017) for the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at NMSU. Richard primarily researches new strategies to help improve pecan production issues faced by New Mexico pecan growers with a focus on alternate bearing, fertilizer usage, and irrigation. He also coordinates educational programs for pecan and other tree nut producers, and assists local orchardists by relaying new research aimed at improving production yield. Heerema states that he greatly values his close working relationships with pecan industry clientele, and feels his role allows him to acknowledge real challenges experienced by farmers and actively address these issues by utilizing university research efforts and extension education.
Heerema double majored in Biology and Agriculture, and Plant Science from Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa in May 1998. He received his PhD in Plant Biology from the University of California (UC), Davis in September 2005 with his dissertation entitled, Compartmentalization of carbon and nitrogen stresses within almond spurs, under the advisement of Drs. Theodore M. Dejong, and Steven A. Weinbaum. Before attaining his current position at NMSU, he was a research assistant at Dry Creek Laboratories in Hughson, California (1998-2000) where he was able to work with new fruit and nut cultivars. After this appointment, Richard conducted his doctoral research at UC Davis (2000-2005), which focused on testing the branch autonomy hypothesis and its relation to almond spur carbohydrate storage, flowering, mortality and fruit set.
Currently, Heerema is working with the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) on a project entitled, Comparison of water movement in pecan fields under different irrigation scenarios; implications to the water cycle, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food Research Initiative under Coordinated Agricultural Projects. This research is being conducted at Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center and Stahmann Farms. At each location, two fields are being used for research purposes with one being drip irrigated, and the other being flood irrigated. Richard is the co-director of the project and is working with his colleagues to discover a more efficient water balance strategy that will provide information about where water is going, and what actions must be taken to develop better water management practices. Long-term goals for the project involve making projections about different irrigation methods for pecans in the Mesilla Valley, and the implications of them in relation to the water cycle. This project is especially important to pecan farmers because it will allow them to utilize the most effective irrigation practices to produce healthy, high quality pecans.
In addition to his NM WRRI project, Richard is currently mentoring a doctoral student (Curt Pierce) with his research on novel irrigation strategies for pecans, which includes partial rootzone drying and regulated deficit irrigation with a drip irrigation system. The project is entitled, Sustainable water resources for irrigated agriculture in a desert river basin facing climate change and competing demands: From characterization to solutions, and is being funded by an impressive USDA grant. This project is part of a multi-institutional endeavor with the University of Texas, El Paso, the University of New Mexico, and Texas A&M University.
Heerema is also a co-PI of another USDA Specialty Crops Research Initiative grant, working with PI Dr. Jennifer Randall on a project entitled, Coordinated development of genetic tools for pecan. The main focus of this research is to sequence and annotate the pecan genome, identify genes of physiological and horticultural interest, and evaluate seedlings under various environmental conditions. Ultimately, results of this study will allow for a better understanding of pecan genetic development to aid in producing more profitable and efficient pecan orchards.
In another recent research development, Richard and his colleagues (Drs. Nicole Pietrasiak and Jennifer Randall) were funded through a competitive grant provided by the NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station to investigate the microbiomes of pecan roots. This involves analyzing fungi and bacteria that live in the soil on and around the root. Heerema and his team have studied several pecan orchards to gather valuable data that will allow New Mexico producers to better understand the composition of their soil and develop a more suitable environment for their trees.
Heerema’s additional research can be found in a wide variety of publications, presentations, and magazines. One of his latest articles entitled, Pecan Kernel Phenolics Content and Antioxidant Capacity Are Enhanced by Mechanical Pruning and Higher Fruit Position in the Tree Canopy, was published in May 2020 for the Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science and is centered around the pruning of pecan orchards. Within this study, Richard and his researchers discovered that the mechanical pruning of pecan orchards improved their overall health and resulted in producing superior kernels. Heerema has also written extension publications, circulars and bulletins for several universities and programs. His most current article entitled, Zinc Management in Arid Region Pecan Orchards, was published by the University of Arizona Extension Guide in 2019.
Heerema has delivered presentations at a multitude of industry conferences, educational programs, and professional societies including Master Gardeners, Pesticide Applicators Workshops, Horticultural Science Conferences, and Pecan Grower’s Association Conferences. It is characteristic of him to present on more than one topic during an event and attend panel discussions with other researchers to broaden the scope of his research. His presentation entitled, Environmental Stress in Pecan Trees (with Freeze Injury as Example), was given at the 2020 Arizona Pecan Growers Association and is his latest presentation to date.
Over the course of his career, Richard has been recognized with several awards and honors. His latest accomplishments involve receiving the Educational Aids Blue Ribbon Award from the American Society for Agricultural and Biological Engineers (2019), and the Distinguished Extension Award given by NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (2017). Richard is also an active member in four professional societies consisting of the American Society for Horticultural Science, International Society for Horticulture Science, American Pomological Society, and the Western Pecan Growers Association where he is an honorary board member and assists in organizing their annual conference. He additionally coordinates for the Western Pecan Production Short Course, and has served as the Assistant Department Head for the Extension Plant Sciences Department since 2019.