Eastern Nevada, a hub for commercial pine nut harvesting
Each fall, commercial harvesters come to Nevada to gather pine nuts from the cones of the piñon pine trees.
The typical season for harvesting pine nuts is early September to mid-October but it varies by year.
“It is all weather dependent,” Kathleen Walsh, Natural Resource Specialist for the Bureau of Land Mangement (BLM), said in a phone interview.
Piñon pine trees grow on public land in eastern Nevada. The public can harvest up to 25 pounds of piñon pine nuts on BLM land for their own use without a permit. However, the BLM requires a permit for commercial harvesters and for people harvesting more than 25 pounds.
The BLM conducts their annual pine nut auction each year around August at the Ely District Office for commercial harvesters to bid on units. A unit is a define area of BLM land where commercial pine nut harvesters can gather pine nuts.
“They are places where there have historically been a lot of pine nuts,” Chris Hanefeld, spokesman for the BLM, said.
Once the press release announcing the auction is sent out, the BLM begins taking sealed bids up until the oral auction. There are more than 50 units up for bid each year.
After the auction, the commercial harvesters pay one third of the contract at that point. They also pay for a bond that is refundable if they follow all of the stipulations.
There are only a handful of commercial harvesters in Nevada.
“This year we had about five or six commercial harvesters,” Walsh said.
Part of Walsh’s job is to make sure that the sites keep clean and the harvesters are following the proper rules and regulations during the harvest season.
“They have been in the business a long time,” Walsh said about the harvesters. “By and large they take care of things.”
Many of the commercial harvesters have been harvesting pine nuts in Nevada for years.
“These are professionals,” Hanefeld said. “They come back every year.”
Dayer LeBaron, owner of wholesalepinenuts.com, is one of these commercial pine nut professionals. His ancestors have been gathering pine nuts in Nevada since the 1800s and his father started the family business harvesting pine nuts in 1958.
Since then, his family has been harvesting pine nuts and selling them to warehouses and various markets as well as fulfilling phone and mail orders. Today they also sell their pine nuts online.
“I was seven-years-old the first time I went out to gather pine nuts,” LeBaron said in a recent phone interview with NNBW.
Pine nuts are found in the Nevada Mountains typically at evaluations of 6500 to 7000 feet. LeBaron explained that commercial harvesters move to different sites based on the harvest for that year.
“When it comes to this business we are mobile,” he said.
Since pine nut harvesting is a seasonal business many commercial pine nut harvesters have other businesses and jobs during the remainder of the year. LeBaron also harvests pecans at his orchard in El Paso, Texas and does construction work.
LeBaron explained that it takes two years for a pine nut to fully develop. With such a long growth cycle there are many factors that can plague the crop and cause a harvest to perish.
“It is so unpredictable,” he said.
He said that he has seen a change in environment over the course of the years. According to LeBaron, the weather used to get colder gradually. But in recent years, the weather has fluctuated more with warm and cold spells during the harvest season. This takes a toll on the harvest.
“A year ago the harvest was down to basically nothing,” LeBaron said.
According to the BLM, in 2016, they sold 119,200 pounds of commercial pine nuts while in 2015 they only sold 15,000 pounds. In 2014 they sold 169,500 pounds.
“2014 was one the better years in the past four to five years,” LeBaron said.
However, he said that recent harvests have been nowhere near the amount of cones he used to see in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
One year in the 1980s, “we have harvested all the way into January,” LeBaron said.
Now he is seeing a lot of undeveloped and hollow pine nuts. This is creating a marketing problem for commercial harvesters, as it is harder to sell the smaller seeds.
“The consumer always prefers the bigger seed,” he said.
LeBaron’s children work with him in the family business. His sons are now in the process of taking over the pine nut business.However, LeBaron worries that the environmental changes he is seeing will continue to make it harder for future commercial pine nut harvesters.