Many people are familiar with Hatch Green Chiles, but did you know that the area around the Southern New Mexico town of Alamogordo is prime farmland for pistachios?
Of course, what would be a small town crop in the USA be without a modest feud to go with it? Accordingly, Alamogordo has two competing pistachio farms and vineyards located right next to each other off U.S. Hwy 54/70 North: Heart of the Desert at Eagle Ranch and McGinn’s Pistachio Ranch.
What’s the Deal?
There are more than a few parallels between the offerings of the two farms – sorry, I mean, ranches (this is cowboy country after all). Both are family-run businesses that offer tours of their orchards and vineyards, samplings of pistachio treats, wine tastings, and souvenirs. Both even display Guinness World Record-breaking statues – surely a coincidence and not part of any sort of tit-for-tat statue building contest. Ergo, this blog post takes a small look into the cutthroat (but not really) world of pistachio farming in Alamogordo, New Mexico, USA.
Heart of the Desert
Heart of the Desert was the first pistachio grove in New Mexico and remains the largest producing pistachio grove in the state. It was founded by Nebraskan transplants George and Marianne Schweer. George was stationed at nearby Holloman, AFB in the late 60s. In the early 70s, they decided to make the Tularosa Basin their home, and after searching for a stable desert crop, settled on pistachios. Since they were the first pistachio grove around for miles, the Schweers had to build their own self-contained operation for harvesting and processing their crop, which is still in place today. In 2002, Heart of the Desert expanded to selling wines from their vineyard!
Heart of the Desert’s main building feels the most like classic New Mexicana with its mixture of adobe and brick walls, compared to McGinn’s log cabin look. The layout of Heart of the Desert is open and spacious. There is an interior art gallery and a pretty Tuscan-inspired patio out back. I have yet to do a wine-tasting here, but I have, more than a few times, sampled the pistachio candies and snacks offered at their counter. My favorites are their white chocolate pistachio cookies and pistachio ice-cream!
While at Heart of the Desert be sure to visit the Painted Pony, “Apple-oosa,” my wonderful artist mother-in-law, Penny Thomas Simpson, painted! It was recently smashed by unknown perpetrators, but it has been painstakingly put back together by Penny and is back at the picnic area next to the Heart of the Desert sculpture. Stop by and show it some love! No word yet on if McGinn’s will install a painted goat.
McGinn’s Pistachioland was started by Tom McGinn, a nut salesman and author originally from Panama. He worked previously for the United Fruit Company in the fifties and sixties which sent him around Guatemala, Columbia, and Honduras, and then on to California for various food companies such as Cool Whip. He saw an opportunity and planted his first pistachios in the Tularosa Basin in 1980, about a decade after Heart of the Desert was established. Since then, they’ve expanded to multiple stores and opened the Arena Blanca Winery. In 2008, Tim McGinn had “The World’s Largest Pistachio,” a 30-foot tall pistachio statue built immediately adjacent to the highway. As McGinn explains, he erected it in memory of his father who was said to have enjoyed old-timey roadside attractions.
“A monument for my father was my passion since the day he passed away on Aug. 4, 2007,” Tim McGinn told the Daily News. “I wanted to erect a proper monument that would represent his enormous passion for the creation of a pistachio farm in the bare desert.”Tim McGinn, ABQJournal
It’s definitely hard to imagine this area being a bare desert when I visited a few weeks ago. Once past the gargantuan nut, walking into McGinn’s reminded me a bit of going to see the Country Bears Jamboree at Disney as a kid, it’s a decidedly touristy vibe. At the entrance you’re met by a koi pond and an unsettling mechanical cowboy. On my recent visit, the interior was rather chaotic. It was very crowded with both people and souvenir stands. My mom and I did have a fun wine-tasting experience though, despite all the awkward people squeezing around us.
A Microcosm of Capitalism in the Desert
It is odd that these two businesses are located literally back to back of each other. Apparently, many Alamogordo locals were also surprised and felt it was in bad taste when McGinn’s set up shop next to Heart of the Desert. Having visited both many times over the years, I would say what really sets each apart from the other is their distinctly different vibe.
McGinn’s is hands-down the kitschier of the two. They have the roadside attraction shtick going strong, and it has been very successful for them. That giant pistachio is an ingenious marketing tool as it’s the first thing you notice while driving along the highway between Alamogordo and Tularosa. Plus, advertisements for the “World’s Largest Pistachio!” decorate the interstate everywhere from El Paso through to Northern New Mexico. Cars are simply lured into McGinn’s by the giant pistachio alone. Even Al Roker and Ozzy Osbourne have stopped by for a selfie with it!
In 2009, Roadside America reported that Tim McGinn had expressed that within weeks of building the giant pistachio, a hundred people a day were pulling into the parking lot to take snapshots. “Our store had been open since 1995,” said Tim. “Had I known, I would’ve built the Pistachio, then the store.” Following that statement, Tim was also reported to have claimed that the the giant pistachio had become the second most photographed attraction in New Mexico after White Sands.
“It’s all about branding. Our farm is located beside a busy highway, but we often heard the comment, ‘we never knew you were there,'” said Marianne Schweers, co-owner of Heart of the Desert. “In an effort to counter that issue, we decided to build our trademark so big, it would draw immediate attention, and, without a doubt, identify us as Heart of the Desert.”Marianne Schweers, Alamogordo Daily News
Despite a decade head start, it became apparent that Heart of the Desert was hard-pressed to compete with the monstrous seed. After complaints of their location being hard to find, Heart of the Desert unveiled its own giant statue in 2018: a 26-foot LED neon-lighted version of their signature heart.
Which to Visit?
Which is better remains hotly up for debate, but my recommendation is to go to McGinn’s for a selfie with the giant nut, then come to Heart of the Desert for their hand-made goodies!!
Be sure to also stop by the painted pony to play a short, fun I-spy game!
Until next time,
P.S. A huge thank you to Mark for editing this post!
Here are some tidbits I found interesting while researching for this post:
- Pistachios used to be dyed red to hide any unsightly marks or stains that might turn customers off.
- The heat of the Southern New Mexican desert allows for the pistachio trees to thrive with better nut filling and less ‘blanks’. The winters are cold enough to complete their dormancy (a rest period during winter), meaning the pistachios are set to grow as normal in the spring.
- Heart of the Desert had part of its roof blown off in March of 2019 due to high winds.
- A former manager of McGinn’s was caught after years of embezzling and sentenced in December of 2020 to nine years imprisonment and has to pay $84,854.07 in restitution. She had used a discount scheme and a square card reader.
- Alamogordo police faced a four-hour active shooter and hostage situation at McGinn’s in June of 2017. The perp held thirteen people plus a three year old hostage (he’d later admit to also being on meth). Thankfully, the man surrendered and everyone was released safely.
Like this post? Why not pin it!
Alamogordo Daily News. (2018, June 22). Heart of the Desert builds 26 ft. lighted heart. Retrieved September 3, 2021, from https://www.alamogordonews.com/story/news/local/community/2018/06/22/heart-desert-builds-26-ft-light-up-heart/726187002/
ABQJournal News Staff. (2009, May 05). 6:55am — Forget Cadillac Ranch … Check Out World’s Largest Nut. Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://www.abqjournal.com/17010/655am-forget-cadillac-ranch-check-out-worlds-largest-nut.html
Barbati, Duane. (2017, June 24). Suspect in pistachio farm standoff is denied bail. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.alamogordonews.com/story/news/crime/2017/06/24/hostage-suspect-pistachio-farm-standoff-kaleb-scroggins/425521001/
Bogard, Kenneth D. (2007, August 9). Thomas Michael “Tom” McGinn (1929-2007) – Find A Grave. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/20856644/thomas-michael-mcginn
Dobbs. (2011, August 07). Destination America: McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://on-walkabout.net/2011/08/07/destination-america-mcginns-pistachio-tree-ranch/
Heart of the Desert. (2018, August 30). Premium Pistachios, Gourmet Wines, Cookies and Candies. Retrieved September 12, 2021, from https://www.heartofthedesert.com/
Herrera, Esteban. (1997). Growing Pistachios in New Mexico. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_circulars/CR532/welcome.html
PistachioLand. About Us & News. Retrieved September 1, 2021, from https://pistachioland.com/pistachio-tree-ranch-news-and-promotions/
Maxwell, Nicole (2019, March 13). High winds blow off Heart of the Desert roof. Retrieved September 3, 2021, from https://www.alamogordonews.com/story/news/local/community/2019/03/13/otero-county-nm-high-winds-damage-heart-desert-roof-tularosa-basin/3155682002/
Maxwell, N. (2020, December 04). PistachioLand embezzler sentenced to nine years. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.alamogordonews.com/story/news/local/community/2020/12/04/pistachioland-embezzler-sentenced-nine-years/3822697001/
Roadside America Team. World’s Largest Pistachio, Alamogordo, New Mexico. Retrieved September 11, 2021, from https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/19946