Recent Thoughts
The 2010 Season Begins....
(0 votes)

These perfect strands of flowers are called catkins.  These are the structures that produce the pollen on the pecan tree, and they are the first new growth to appear in the spring. Pecan trees are covered with catkins, and this allows the wind to carry pollen from tree to tree, fertilizing the female flowers. Pecan trees do not depend on bees or other insects to cross pollinate the flowers.

Of course, the recent collapse of so many bee colonies should be a concern to everyone. Our fellow tree nut growers who produce almonds are dependent on bees to carry pollen from tree to tree to produce viable nuts. The flower of the almond tree is self-incompatible, and so it requires a cross pollination that can only be accomplished by bees and other small flying insects.

 
As 2007 draws to a close...
(1 vote)

Every so often, a season on the farm ends with the general agreement that "we won't see a season like this past one perhaps ever again in our lives....." Our Crystal City orchard received over fifty inches of rain during the growing season; on average we receive twenty one inches of rain during the entire twelve month year. Over a ninety day period beginning in late April, it rained or misted almost every single day.

For a non-farmer, rainy weather is little more than a nuisance during the rush hour commute, and possibly an inconvenient imposition on weekend plans. If, however, you are in the business of taking care of trees, then continuous rain is a quite larger demon: it is something that modifies your environment and prevents you from carrying out the tasks that make up your livelihood. During the greater part of the period when the young nuts were beginning to develop on the trees, the saturated wet ground prevented us from entering the fields with our tractors and sprayers. As a result, we were unable to provide a modicum of care to the pecan trees, and insects and disease had a free pass to inflict damage at will on our developing leaves and nuts.

Our harvest will begin in earnest next week, and the current state of the crop would discourage even the most wild eyed optimist. The predominate variety that we grow is the Wichita nut, and this years crop has been hard hit by scab, a bacterial disease that is spread by the constant splashing of raindrops on the nuts and leaves. Many of the nuts have scab related damage over more than fifty percent of the nut shuck, and most of these nuts will be inedible. We will have to separate out the damaged nuts before we send the crop to the shelling plant, and thus the total poundage of nuts that we produce this year will be greatly reduced.

We are not smart enough to know, or even to hazard a guess, as to whether or not this years abnormal rainfall is somehow related to global climate change, or if it is within the bounds of the expected possible hundred year rainfall. In the past twenty years, we have never had this much rain, so frequently and so intensely. A low pressure system sat over our part of south Texas for months on end, and it seemed to drag every bit of moisture in the Western Hemisphere to the storm clouds over our orchard.

Of course, there will be some longer term benefits for the farmers in our region: the local reservoir that supplies irrigation water to our area is full, our river is flowing strongly, and the aquifer that supplies our water wells has been completely recharged. These blessings will be greatly appreciated in the coming years, as the fight over water in south Texas continues between the suburbia/carwash builders and the people who produce food for the world's growing population (And given the melt down in subprime mortgages, I think the suburbia builders may be in for a well deserved hiatus. Destroying the planet one subdivision at a time is hard work!)

All is not lost this year, as we have three other varieties of pecan that seem to have taken all the extra rain in stride. Our Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Desirable pecan trees all have full loads, and the nuts appear to have excellent quality. Although these trees make up less than half of our acreage, they do ensure that we will have some organic crop to sell to the many people who call us looking for organic pecan halves and pieces. As an insurance policy, they ‘paid off' this year, but it comes at a cost: on average, a Wichita tree will produce twice as many nuts as any one of these varieties.

This winter, as the great rainy season of 2007 fades from our mind, we will be ramping up one of the most important projects that we have undertaken at Rio Grande Organics. Over the past few winters, we have been experimenting with various cover crops to try and determine suitable plantings for our orchard soil type. Cover crops are generally members of the clover family or the vetch family, and as they grow during the winter, the plants take nitrogen out of the air and convert it to a usable form in the soil. By using cover crops in the winter, we will no longer have to provide nitrogen fertilizer to our trees in the spring. All of the nitrogen that they need will be ‘fixed' in the soil during the winter by the clover growing around the dormant tree.

Cover crops were always grown by farmers prior to WWII as a way of providing fertility to their spring crops of corn, cotton or tobacco. After the war, as inexpensive fertilizer from chemical plants became readily available, farmers stopped going to the trouble of planting and caring for a winter crop of yellow clover. It was much easier to simply spread cheap granulated fertilizer over the fields in early spring ahead of the seed planter. The knowledge of what cover crops worked in which soil types in south Texas has long been lost. Only with the recent price spike in fertilizer, which is mainly derived from natural gas, have farmers once again sought out suitable legumes to plant in their fields after harvest. Many of the plant varieties that we have tested over the past few years have actually been imported to this country from Australia, as their researchers have been leaders in the development of self-regenerating legumes for decades. We have had good results with four different plants, and this winter we will be planting various mixtures of these plants over a couple hundred acres of orchard. Our research will continue, as it is important to find a plant that will reseed itself year after year; a legume that has to be reseeded every year is not a great advantage over traditional fertilizer.

The search for a perfect cover crop will proceed this winter, and like so many other projects on a farm, the probability of reaching a conclusive solution is not great. Weather conditions and insect patterns change every year, and a promising clover this winter may fail to do much next year. It will only be after many successful winters that we will be able to say that we have a cover crop that works. But that, in a nutshell, is what farming is all about: an ongoing battle against nature and economic forces to profitably produce food that people want to eat. And as we carefully look over a trailer load of our nuts at the end of a harvest day, we will be thankful that we get to spend our time taking care of trees, and we will look forward to the challenges that next year brings.

 
The drought of ‘06.
(0 votes)

The Houston Chronicle had a short article today about the ongoing drought that stretches across much of Texas. The writer attempted to gauge the economic impact of the drought; it is thought that the direct economic losses to farmers and ranchers could be as high as $4 billion, with a possible indirect impact on rural economies of as much as $8 billion in losses.

The National Drought Monitor indicates that most of south Texas currently falls into the worst drought categories: D3, which is severe drought, and D4, which is exceptional drought. In Quemado, along the Rio Grande River, it has pretty much stopped raining over the last two years. Our normal yearly rainfall averages about 22 inches. In 2005, we received about 14 inches of rain, with 7 ½ inches falling on a single day. So far, in 2006, we have had a total of approximately 4 inches of rain.

As one travels across this area, the impact is clearly visible. Cattle wander across brown pastureland, searching for any edible green vegetation. Corn plants that would normally be six feet tall struggle to attain a height of four feet and are arranged irregularly in the row due to many seeds failing to germinate last spring. There was simply no moisture in the soil to initiate the plant's life.

The long Texas summer is beginning to take a toll on some of the mature, native trees that have been growing for years near long abandoned farmsteads. One notices various red oaks and pine trees, which have been through earlier droughts in their sixty years of life, now turning brown from the top of the canopy downward, a sure sign that the tree's death is from a lack of water. A mature oak tree needs to absorb at least 50 gallons of water from the root zone each day to replace the water that has transpired from the leaves. There is simply not enough moisture in the soil today to keep the tree in balance.

Most of our extreme weather, such as flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes, occurs over a short period of time, and the impact and loss from the storm can be quickly measured. Engineers can study the data, and propose solutions that will mitigate damage from future events. Droughts consist of endless sunny days, with bright blue skies. The damage accrues gradually. Each day begins with the hope that there will be some sign of incipient rainfall, and ends with the realization that there is no relief in sight. When the drought finally ends, there is often only the thought that it is a generational occurrence and not something that needs to be planned for and mitigated through some type of governmental action.

For the time being, our pecan crop is nourished by the waters that come to us from the Amistad Reservoir, by way of a canal system built in 1920. I always marvel at how the people of that time understood some of the vagaries of nature, and they formulated and executed a plan to provide water for agricultural and municipal use. The Maverick County Canal carries water to over 80,000 acres of farm and ranch land. Notably, the water flows by gravity, and thus there is no need for diesel fuel to pump this water. In an age of $3/gallon diesel, this turns out to be a very important consideration.

Over the past thirty years, a total of eight major new reservoirs have been constructed in Texas. These man made lakes hold between 181,000 acre feet (Joe Pool Lake) and 1.1 million acre feet (Richland-Chambers Reservoir). During this same period, the population of the state roughly doubled, from 12 million to 23 million inhabitants. Prior to 1976, there were approximately 28 major reservoirs constructed to provide water supplies for the state. These are all reservoirs that when full can store in excess of 250,000 acre-feet of water. Of these older reservoirs, seven were 'super' reservoirs that can hold in excess of 1 million acre feet of water.

It is hard to look at this water supply data and not consider that the future water supply needs of Texas have been seriously neglected. Rather than have an ample supply of water today for municipal, industrial, and agricultural use, we have devolved to a near state of warfare over the existing sources of water. The large municipalities are looking to usurp limited ground water from areas that are increasingly distant from their citizens. In West Texas, there is a push to limit, and perhaps eliminate agricultural water usage. All across the state, private equity financiers are buying up existing water and riparian rights, with the intention of reselling the water to the highest bidder. The common thread to all of these actions seems to be that agriculture is an "inefficient" user of water resources, and that municipal development is the "highest and best" use of scarce water resources.

In the late 1950's, following a previous period of severe drought, Walter Prescott Webb, a noted scholar and author, and a group of scientists from the University of Texas proposed a massive public works program to capture and redistribute water from the high rainfall area of East Texas to the low rainfall area of South Texas. They proposed building a number of large reservoirs on the Neches, Trinity, Sabine, Brazos, Guadalupe and Nueces Rivers that would in essence store excess rainfall. The genius of the plan was to construct an intra-river canal that would connect all of these river systems. The canal would lie about 70 miles inland from the coast. The redistribution of water would not only allow for the growth of all the coastal cities, including Victoria and Corpus Christi, but it would also provide water for the irrigation of almost 1 million acres of Rio Grande Valley farmland.

As the drought ended, the will to spend a large sum of money for water capture and redistribution evaporated. Could such a project be built today? It seems unlikely, given the rise of environmental groups whose agenda does not fall neatly into the municipal, industrial or agricultural bucket. The argument most often heard from the environmental groups is that we need to "preserve natural systems as they are", or, in fact, to "reverse the effects of man's influence, and restore natural systems to their original, pristine state". It is hard to envision a single new reservoir construction project that the environmental groups would support. And yet, by failing to build new reservoirs, we are in effect undermining our future ability to produce food and fiber in the state.

Texas is unique among states in that it contains within its borders areas of abundant rainfall, and areas of moderate rainfall that are subject to occasional periods of drought. We need some forward looking citizens, like the pioneers of 1920, to push forward a grand, visionary plan to capture the abundant rain of the eastern part of the state, and make it available for the growth of the western part of the state. Most of us can readily see the havoc caused to our daily lives by an over reliance on foreign produced energy resources. The latest mantra of the WTO free-traders is that agricultural production needs to move to the less developed areas of the world, where food can be produced at lower cost. While this may have some validity in the short term, it fails to calculate and include the cost of deploying "the world's police force" to keep the supply lines open and to keep the food moving freely along international trade routes. Once these costs are factored in, foreign food, like foreign oil, will not be a "cheap" alternative. Our future, as a growing, vibrant economy, depends on us acting today to harness the abundant water resources that we have.

 
Oil on the plate.
(0 votes)

The recent holiday season was once again a feast of epic proportions; copious amounts of food and drink, endless hours of televised sporting events, and a healthy dose of guilt free marathon mall foraging. For most, the enormous quantities of food are plainly a metaphor for the greater abundances of life, such as career, family and material wealth. It is unlikely that there are many among us who are content to accept that a wealth of nourishment is cause for great celebration, or even that this condition is somewhat of a miracle when viewed against the long historical struggle to feed the world's growing population.

There is certainly an appreciation of "fine" food in America today; it is evident in the selection of outstanding wines available at almost any discount retail store and it is apparent in the many hours of televised cooking lessons that feature celebrity gourmet chefs. The fabulous generation of wealth in America over the past thirty years has created demand for a highly varied diet, and it is not unusual for an American restaurant, or supermarket, to offer New Zealand lamb, Japanese sushi, French foie gras, and Chilean sea bass every day of the year. Even the concept of food seasonality, such as the appearance of fresh, crisp apples in the fall, is an outdated notion, and one that is certain to generate looks of bewilderment if brought up as a topic for discussion in polite company.

The disconnecting of urban America from rural America is a process that has been occurring over the past sixty years; it is largely a process that began in the aftermath of World War Two. During the war, a large industry was developed to produce various nitrate chemicals, which were used in everything from bullets to bombs. After the war, there was a major drive to seek other uses for the industries and infrastructure which were built to support the war effort. The chemical plants that made gunpowder, also known as ammonium nitrate, were converted into fertilizer factories, and soon rural America was awash in low cost plant nutrients. With the improvements in mechanical technology that came from the war efforts and the rapid advances in plant genetics, the stage was set for some stunning advances in efficiency by the American farmer. The result of what is commonly referred to as the "Green Revolution" staggers the imagination; today less than one in two hundred Americans lists his (or her) occupation as "farmer" and agricultural commodities are America's fourth largest export category.

With all the success that has been achieved in the mass production of food, it is easy to see how few Americans would worry about the possibility that our food supply chain has an Achilles heel, or that we were in danger of facing rapidly escalating food costs. Food in recent years has been a non-issue; there is plenty available and relative to other goods and services, it is cheap. But behind the great success story lies a dark, foreboding fact: almost every component of our food production and distribution system is dependent on low cost petroleum. Fertilizer, in the form of ammonia, is made from natural gas; which has recently tripled in price. The various machines used to plant, till and harvest crops all run on diesel fuel. Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are almost entirely produced by plants that use petroleum as the primary feedstock. Fresh vegetables and meat are transported to our local markets by diesel fueled trucks, and these products are kept cold in transit by diesel fueled refrigeration units. Much of the water used to irrigate crops today is ground water that needs to be pumped out of the ground by large diesel motors. Our entire food supply chain is critically dependent on petroleum.

Clearly, the current and future population of the world is heavily dependent on a continued supply of low cost petroleum and natural gas. The global population has grown rapidly as the supply of food has increased; this is the expected action in any system that contains living organisms. Increase the food supply and the population will grow. Yet even with all of the great food producing efficiency of the Green Revolution, there are still large numbers of people who are on the cusp of starvation. As the cost of food increases, or as the amount of food produced yearly decreases (because of higher costs), this group of starving, under nourished people will grow.

There are those who question this entire line of thought, and they generally point to the fact that food prices do not seem to be following the same upward trajectory of oil prices. It is instructive to view the costs in our food supply chain as being similar to a freight train at rest; as the engine starts to move, there is a lot of slack in the couplings between cars that must be taken up before the rear car starts to move. For example, farmers generally pay for their next year's fertilizer at harvest time. That would mean that the fertilizer used to produce the 2005 crop was paid for in the fall of 2004, when oil prices were somewhat lower than they are today. And as fertilizer prices rise, farmers will start to put out smaller amounts of fertilizer for each crop. For a few years, unused fertilizer in the soil from previous crops can be utilized by the plants to produce similar yields. But make no mistake, at some near term point, the nutrients in the ground will be insufficient and the yields will go off a cliff.

Already, a large number of American farmers are at a point where they are no longer financially able to farm. Two years of rising input prices have coincided with low commodity prices brought on by the global shift to free, open markets. This synchronization of global commodity prices will produce a one time reduction of some prices in certain markets, but after that, global prices can be expected to move in lock step. The savings brought about by the great global labor arbitrage, whereby the labor rates of Minnesota are replaced by the labor rates of Indonesia, and the resulting savings is passed to the American consumer in the form of lower prices, is truly a one time event. Soon enough, the rising price of oil will be felt throughout the food chain, and owing to the universal pricing of oil, all agricultural producers will be faced with a great margin squeeze.

The first warning flares are being fired off by some of the biggest food processors as this is written. Kraft has just announced that due to ‘higher commodity costs' of some $800 million, they will close 20 plants and lay off 8,000 workers, which is about 8% of their workforce. What boggles the mind is that a large multinational such as Kraft has had a huge impact of lower input costs from their global sourcing capability. But this ability to obtain agricultural inputs at more advantageous pricing cannot offset the huge energy costs that food processors face. Tyson Corporation, which is a large producer of beef and chicken products, has just reported quarterly results that Wall Street analysts have described as a "train wreck". The phrase that keeps re- appearing in their report to shareholders is "higher energy costs".

For the foreseeable future, it appears that energy costs, including crude oil, gasoline, and natural gas will remain at elevated levels, or even possibly rise from the current levels. The time when higher costs can be absorbed by the producers and processors of America's food has passed. Expect to see some hefty increases in the price of food at the consumer level. And also expect that there will be a restructuring of the larger food producers, while many smaller food businesses will cease to exist.

 
Harvest diary.
(0 votes)

Harvest Diary:

 

Sunday, October 9th - The early October rains have kept us out of the orchard until today. We had hoped to begin harvesting on September 28th, but wet ground and harvesting equipment don't mix very well. The tree shaker and the self propelled sweepers tend to sink in and create big ruts. To harvest pecans one needs hard, flat dry ground.

By noontime, the bright sun had burned off enough dew to signal that the 2005 harvest could finally begin. A whole years worth of work would be measured in the quality and quantity of pecans that could be gathered by our harvest crew. The first machine to work the row of nut laden trees is our tree shaker. This machine grabs the trunk and violently shakes the entire tree, disgorging a waterfall of ripe pecans. Once a full row of trees has been shaken, the two sweepers move in to gently brush the pecans into one big central row. This central row, or windrow, as we call it, is then inhaled by a group of machines that looks like a freight train. In fact, it is our big tractor pulling a pecan harvester, discharging a stream of nuts into a trailing nut wagon. Although the machinery of harvest has been idle for ten months, it only takes an hour or so for the crew to get into a gentle rhythm of tree shaking, sweeping and harvesting. By sundown, we have seven trailer loads of nuts, and we are ready to start our cleaning plant the following day. We all sleep well this night, tired from a long afternoon in the sun, but happy knowing that the harvest is under way.

 

Monday, October 10th - A gentle rain has fallen sometime during the night. The orchard has large puddles in areas, and it is clear that the field harvest will be on hold for a day or two. Today, we will focus on running the material that we harvested yesterday through our cleaning plant. This process separates the nuts from the dirt, rocks and shucks that get picked up by the harvester.

We will also spend the day going over all the equipment that we used yesterday in the field. All of the old equipment (and some of our tractors are twenty years old) held up pretty well. The lone exception is the brand new self propelled sweeper that we are using for the first time. Some of the bearings in the sweeper head broke off late yesterday. A call out to the California manufacturer reveals that our harvest conditions may be rougher than those normally encountered, and that we should probably upgrade the parts. We really can't wait for parts to come from the coast, so our head mechanic Martine comes up with a work around and spends the afternoon rebuilding the head.

By days end, we have nine thousand pounds of clean pecans resting on the screen floor of a large drying trailer. A big fan gently blows air up through the floor, and over the next four days the moisture content of the nuts will drop to six percent, a good level at which to crack the nuts. But this is where our work ends; a large tractor trailer load of nuts will be sent to a shelling plant in Arkansas for the final processing.

 

Tuesday, October 11th - The orchard floor is still too wet to restart the harvesting process. Cloud cover hangs over the Quemado valley, and along with the lack of any discernable breeze, the conditions for ground drying are not very good. A low pressure system that is bringing early season snow to Colorado is wreaking havoc on our harvest. The weather system has been over us for two weeks now; it is simply not moving. The weather forecast continues to suggest a "chance of thunderstorms".

Our harvest is at a standstill. We will spend the day making some changes to the equipment in our cleaning plant; a little work with the cutting torch here, a bit of spot welding over there. Cleaning pecans is really an exercise in material handling, and as the material moves through the plant, there is a tendency for it to find the path of least resistance. Sometimes that trail leads off of the conveyor belt and on to the floor. If we could be in the field harvesting today, then these changes would most likely be put off until the winter. But with time on our hands, making these repairs becomes the order of the day.

 

Wednesday, October 12th - A 6am walk through one of the pecan blocks indicates that the ground is dry enough to support the harvest machinery. By 7:30am, the tree shaker is lined up with the first tree, ready to start its violent work. Our field crew arrives and they ready themselves with their backpack blowers and rakes that are necessary to get all of the pecans into the row where they can be collected by the sweepers. But as we get ready to start, a new problem appears: the dew is rapidly building on the grass, and it will affect our ability to sweep the nuts into a concentrated row. There is nothing to do but wait until the dew has burned off. Normally, we don't have much dew, but the recent rains have saturated the ground, and the low cloud cover creates ideal conditions for dew formation.

It's 9am, the sun is shining, and we are ready to get started. The orchard quickly becomes a beehive of activity; machines and field workers are in motion everywhere. It takes about two hours to get some windrows of pecans formed so that the harvester can begin its work. Every thirty minutes, the harvester picks up 3000 pounds of nuts and green shuck material. At the beginning of the harvest, some of the pecans are ripe, and some of them are still enclosed in their green shuck. Our cleaning plant will remove the shucks from the nuts, allowing the nuts to dry out so that they can later be shelled.

We work through a few kinks, but everything is progressing well. By lunchtime, we have a shuttle bringing trailer loads of nuts to the plant on a regular basis. Fortunately, we are at a point where we can start to fine tune our process, looking for any slight change that will allow us to harvest nuts faster and more efficiently. Load after load of fresh pecans heads to the plant. We keep expecting something to break or stop running, but our worst fears are not realized. Our only miscalculation of the day is that we have shaken too many trees, and our harvester must run until almost 10pm to pick up all the nuts that are now on the ground.

 

Thursday, October 13th - An early morning check of the weather radar shows that there are some major storms about forty miles to the west of us over Mexico. Weather radar, which we access over the internet, is a great tool that helps us to plan our day's events around the orchard. The radar today shows that some of the storms are pretty severe, dropping up to three inches of rain per hour over certain areas. New storm cells seem to be popping up all around us.

We head into the orchard with our equipment just before 9am. Given the dew formation, there is no rush to get into the harvest rhythm too quickly, as everyone senses that a storm is about to hit us at any minute. A few drops fall, but a scan of the sky shows rapidly moving clouds, and the hope is that the weather will break and we can start our nut gathering. There is one row of nuts that could not be picked up last night owing to the darkness, and now our harvester struggles to get the pecans up off the wet ground. Pretty quickly, our harvester is a mélange of nuts, mud and wet grass clippings.

The sporadic rain drops are now coming more frequently, and it is apparent that we are not going to escape the storm. As the intensity builds, a decision is made to send all the men and equipment back to headquarters. At first, we hold out some hope that the storm will quickly pass and that we will get back into the field today. But as the morning passes, and there is no break in the weather, it becomes clear that we are looking at an extended delay in the harvest.

What might have been a manageable situation rapidly deteriorates around lunchtime. A squall line, which is a series of very intense storm cells, moves over us and begins to drop up to two inches of rain per hour on us. By mid afternoon, our orchard looks like a lake and there is some serious flash flooding in the country around us. All told, this storm will dump six and half inches of rain on our land. It will be a week before we can resume harvesting. The only silver lining is that the storm did not produce hail or high winds, either of which would have knocked nuts out of the trees and into the fast flowing water. It is not the start to harvest season that we had hoped for, but eventually the orchard will dry out and we will resume our harvest. Once again, we are reminded that producing food is not an easy endeavor, the challenges are enormous and the risk of total loss is as close as the clouds.

 
A long winter.
(0 votes)

Call it the "winter of our discontent".

A fledgling organic farming operation commences, a first harvest of pecans comes in, and energy is flowing through all who are connected with the enterprise. Every challenge is met with the determined force of pioneers; a solution will be found to overcome any obstacle. The pecan crop is small, by conventional standards, but the market is strong and anxious buyers are willing to deal with the new, unsophisticated supplier.

With tireless work and boundless enthusiasm, the winter vegetable crops are seeded into newly worked land that has lain fallow for many years. Daily, the tractor rumbles past a house that been vacant for many years; a shelter only to the cold and wet immigrants who have come illegally across the adjacent Rio Grande River. In time, the various crops emerge from the wonderful sandy loam soil, and with regular irrigation of the precious river water, the plants begin to thrive.

Soon, the plants begin to mature and the rows of red lettuce, golden beets, and green arugula form a tapestry that more closely resembles a Dutch tulip field than a South Texas vegetable field. Older neighbors, who have spent their entire lives in the area, remark with amazement that they had no idea that lettuce would grow so well in the region. Across many fields, rows are endlessly weeded by hand, insects are controlled with organic sprays such as garlic juice and rosemary oil, and by sheer force of will, the crop is brought to a harvest ready climax.

And then, the nightmare begins. Upbeat solicitations to potential buyers are met with the disdain normally reserved for telemarketers selling long distance phone service. Unfamiliarity with the industry standards for packaging results in a long series of unpleasant phone calls and a stream of returned product. Visits to the farm from ‘field buyers' take on an almost comedic quality; if there is one damaged plant in the field, you can almost guarantee that the buyer will stop his car near the plant and walk right up to the offending vegetation.

The nightmare now morphs and seems to acquire a life of its own. It is actively working against us, waiting for the moment we are most vulnerable and striking us with catastrophic blows. A refrigeration unit on our delivery truck malfunctions and a five thousand dollar load is reduced to a mass of rotting boxes. A single day temperature spike over ninety degrees causes some mild yellowing in the outer leaves of the spinach crop; the slight damage is ruinous to the crops salability. It is the one crop we have that actually has some market demand; now, it only awaits the disk plow that will return it to the soil.

The vibrant energy of the fall pecan harvest and the holiday season has dissipated; the mood around the farm is matched only by the bare, leafless trees set against the gray winter sky. The unspoken emotions of farming now threaten to color every verbal communication, from the helplessness that nature can induce to the anger provoked by the uncaring market. The knowledge that we are feeding our fellow people, and the confidence that comes from that, doesn't seem to be able to sustain our spirits.

And then, when it is most needed, a small sign appears, gently reminding us that great force of nature can lift us from our winter abyss. The pecan trees begin, in a slow, cautious process, to shed their brown bud sheaths, and expose their small, tender green leaves to the sun. The tentative coming out of the leaves reminds us all that the current season, with all of its problems and missed opportunities, will pass and that a new day is here. Our energy can once again be rekindled, and focused on giving the trees the care they need during the long summer months to produce a bountiful harvest.

It has been a long, confounding winter, and the best that can be said for it is that "we learned a lot...", a gentle euphemism that fails to convey the range of emotions that the events of the period produced. But in that phrase is the kernel of truth that will propel us forward, for we did learn a lot, about growing organic vegetables, harvesting them, and getting them to market. We will plant our spring crops, we will nurture our trees, and we will do what we have to do to be successful. This is not an easy business, but, as we like to remind ourselves, it is a necessary business.

 
Economic realities.
(0 votes)

Economic realities....

The drive into the Quemado Valley on the road that heads north out of Eagle Pass, Texas offers a puzzling array of pastoral images. Snaking along the high bank of the Rio Grande River on a bluff about 200 feet above the water, the road winds for twenty miles through typical Texas desert scrub brush. The grassless, rocky land is dominated by thorny brush, consisting primarily of mesquite and huisache. One of the first scenes to appear as you descend into the valley is a series of beautiful green alfalfa fields. The lush fields extend for miles to the bluffs and small hills that ring this verdant river valley.

River valleys are very special places in agriculture. The Quemado Valley was formed over millions of years by the erosive action of flowing water against uplifted rock. The soil on our farm consists of a silt and loam mixture that was deposited by the periodic flooding of the adjacent river. Beneath our topsoil is a deep layer of gravel that allows any rain or irrigation water to quickly drain off. The combination of nutrient rich topsoil and excellent drainage creates the best possible growing environment for trees and vegetables.

Past the alfalfa fields, there is a very large cattle feeding operation. The availability of irrigation water from the Amistad Reservoir keeps the grass green, and the numerous cattle grazing on the ample feed always present a picture of good husbandry. We are grateful that we have a local feedlot, as it is a great source of manure for our pecan trees. The feedlot has been through a number of ownership changes through the years, reflecting the boom and bust economics of both cattle and grain prices. As a business enterprise, the feeding of cattle for weight gain operates on the thin margin between two dynamic commodity prices, and either a sinking cattle price or a rising grain price can quickly make the venture quite unprofitable.

Soon enough, the view gives way to the images that will haunt us for years to come. We find in front of us the abandoned pecan orchards that dot the Quemado Valley. Hulks of rotting trees stand like ghosts in long lines, slowly decaying from the top down. The grayish brown color of the broken limbs and trunks contrasts strongly with the vibrant green undergrowth and the blue sky. A dead tree takes many years to break down and decompose, and these orchards serve as a daily reminder to all that failure in agriculture is often closer than one thinks. Some of the trees have new growth from the base, as the rootstock sends out sucker branches and desperately tries to cling to life. Confronted by this picture, one is forced to contemplate why someone would grow trees to a mature, producing state, and then discontinue the care, including summer irrigation, that is necessary to sustain the life of the trees.

The answer to this question has many different components, but the main reason why these small orchards are in their current state is found in the economics of small scale agriculture in America today. Many years ago, local markets existed for the sale of food produced in a given region, and supplies, or agricultural inputs, were purchased from locally owned businesses. A pecan grower who produced a superior quality nut could expect to get a higher price in the local market for his crop. The market forces that determined the supply of food, such as weather and crop acreage planted, were known to the local grower, and he could react accordingly to further his economic advantage. When the grower needed supplies or a piece of equipment, there were any number of local merchants with whom he could negotiate an advantageous price. Fast forward to 2004, and we find a vastly different picture.

As one drives across a large state like Texas, through big cities and small, rural towns, it is easy to see who the "winners" are in the game of economic survival. There is a certain pattern of retail stores that is repeated endlessly along the roads that connect the populations. Typically, there is a big box retailer, a large food supermarket, and some combination of national specialty retailers supporting certain niche markets such as auto parts and electronics. Although the square footage of their retail stores may be different, all of these stores have one common trait: they are part of a national or even international chain of stores. The common thread that has allowed these businesses to continue to grow is that they are very efficient in how they purchase their goods, and this efficiency is defined in terms of the total transaction cost, with low price being a predominant factor. As these retailers grow, they need to have suppliers who can provide large quantities of goods to a majority of their stores. Dealing with a handful of large, integrated suppliers is much more cost efficient than dealing with a large number of small suppliers. It is this equation that has sadly left many family farms with only one option, that of selling their goods to brokers and middlemen, the grim reapers of the agricultural world.

It might seem as though these efficiencies in the retail food market would be duplicated in the farm equipment, seed and chemical businesses, and that the small farmer would be a beneficiary through competitive local prices in his yearly purchases. The reality is a far cry from this rosy scenario. By its very nature, farming is spread over vast areas of land, and there are few places where there are large concentrations of farmers. Many years ago, farm equipment dealers had stores or agents in every small town, and in fact there might be three or four different tractor dealerships in each farming community. The push towards maximum corporate efficiency over the last decade has lead to a process of eliminating the less profitable dealerships, and combining other dealers into larger units where possible. Decades of merger and acquisition activity in the farm equipment manufacturing business has resulted in a handful of behemoth corporations, and for many types of critical equipment, such as mechanical cotton pickers, there are only one or two manufacturers left. The end result is that the farmer today does not have a very competitive market from which to procure his equipment and supplies.

Given all of these dynamic forces, it is fairly evident that the decline of the American family farm is irreversible, and that the only hope for small scale agriculture is through change and a different approach to the enterprise. There are a number of ideas that offer hope, but none of them are guarantees for success. For some, like us, the growth of markets specializing in organic products offers the possibility that at some point in the future we might have a profitable enterprise. In some states, such as Vermont and California, there is already a large, growing organic community. In Texas, this community is just beginning to grow, and we will do all we can to see that it takes root and thrives!

 
Rocks, sticks, and dirt.
(0 votes)

As is the case with many things in life, the art of harvesting pecans is really the process of getting rid of that which is not a pecan. When a tree is shaken by our hydraulic "lobster claw", all sorts of material comes flying out of the tree. Nuts, leaves, and dead branches fill the sky the moment the shaker starts its violent back and forth motion, and within seconds the ground is littered with a wide array of trash and treasure.

We are novices in the pecan business, and the start of harvest has brought this small fact to the forefront of our existence. There comes a point at which the nuts are going to fall off of the tree with the first stiff breeze, and the harvest cannot be delayed any longer. The rising sun signals that it is time for the small army of men and machines to head out to a block of trees loaded with nuts and begin the process of shaking, sweeping, and harvesting. For better or worse, the gathering of nuts begins, and each decision made during the growing year reveals its good or bad result.

It is crucial to have a good, smooth, hard packed orchard floor before commencing the tree shaking operations. Nuts will tend to hide in any crevice, gap or low spot that they can find, and in so doing they can avoid the clutches of the mechanical nut reaper. What makes this whole process tricky is that we have put up borders (in essence low, fifteen inch high dirt dikes) throughout the orchard during the growing season to control and route the irrigation water. Before we can harvest, the borders need to be knocked down, and the dirt needs to be spread out to create a smooth floor.

The process of knocking down the borders highlights one of the major differences between conventional and organic farming. If we were operating a conventional pecan orchard, our first step would be to spray Round-Up, a potent herbicide, on the grass growing on the borders. The grass would be dead and dry in two days, and the dirt would spread out easily. For conventional farmers, this process is very efficient; after spraying, only one pass of an implement is needed to get the ground level.

Round-Up may be more popular than Miss America in our country today. Farmers love it because it kills a multitude of weeds in their crop fields. Maintenance people can keep any building, sidewalk, or parking lot looking neat with a few squirts of the liquid on unsightly vegetation. Even homeowners are more than happy to use it because it replaces that least enjoyable tool of all, the hoe. Monsanto, the global giant that produces the herbicide, generates almost 40% of their revenue from the sale of Round-Up.

We choose not to use Round-Up, or any other herbicide, in our daily operations. We know that it kills grass on contact; we don't have any idea what it does to the bacteria and other living organisms in our soil. Nobody really knows what the effect of long-term use of Round-Up on soil is, but we are going to go out on the proverbial (pecan) limb: it probably isn't good. Every year, compost and manure are added to our soils to build a healthy, balanced medium, one in which our trees will thrive. We even encourage the soil organisms to grow by spraying molasses on our ground a couple of times each spring.

Without conventional herbicides, organic farmers must use mechanical means to kill grass and weeds. Typically, we use a disk to mix up the ground, and follow up with a land plane to smooth things out. This would have put us in good position to have an easy, uneventful harvest, but a surprise five-inch rainstorm days before we were to begin caught us completely off guard. Wet soil is not an ideal surface on which to sweep and gather up nuts, and our mechanical harvester is picking up a lot of dirt with the nuts. The trailers coming into the plant from the field are a mixture of nuts, shucks, dirt, rocks and twigs. This mixture has placed a heavy burden on the plant equipment, and the process has been much slower than anticipated. Our goal for next year is simple: nuts and shucks only!

Any start-up enterprise faces challenges that were unforeseen, and also some events that were unimaginable. We learn something new each day, and future success will be built upon the lessons gleaned during the long hours of harvest. Pecans will be sold, and a profit and loss statement will be generated. One item that won't show up on the sheet was a comment from a neighbor who came over to talk to us as we harvested a row of trees near the fence. "We didn't have any bad chemical smells in our house when you sprayed the orchard this summer.....are you doing something different?" "Yes", we replied, "we're doing things a little differently...".

 
The harvest looms.
(0 votes)

Nature has evolved many different strategies to wreak havoc on a pecan orchard. A sudden hailstorm is nature's equivalent of running the orchard through a paper shredder. Green nuts, limbs and leaves litter the ground after a rain of golf ball sized hail has pummeled the trees. It is beyond ironic that chunks of ice can fall from the sky here in the Quemado Valley when the ground temperature is hovering around 100 degrees. We are certainly fortunate that this has not been our fate this year.

On the insect front, the pecan nut casebearer will generally produce four generations of bugs in a single summer. In the worm stage, this little eating machine likes to gnaw his way into a young, immature nut, forever ensuring that the nut will not develop into a harvestable state. If we are a few days late in our control measures, the worm population can explode overnight and reduce our harvest by 40 to 60 %. Lesser insect threats, including the aphid and the hickory shuckworm, can also materialize and threaten to reduce our harvest to very low levels.

We are new to the pecan world, and this harvest will be our first harvest as caretakers of this fine stand of trees on the banks of the Rio Grande River. Alan, our farm manager, comes from the vegetable business, and in most previous years, his challenge was to harvest the plentiful watermelons that grow so well in this valley. He is anxious about getting the orchard floor ready for the mechanical equipment that we will use to gather the nuts and because we are a transitional orchard, he can't employ herbicides to get rid of the weeds. This is only one of the many obstacles we face as we convert our pecan orchard from conventional agriculture to "certified organic".

The mainstay of our harvest equipment is the self-propelled tree shaker, a mechanical arm on wheels that grabs a tree trunk and violently shakes the tree for about seven seconds. Instantly, a blizzard of pecans falls from the tree and forms a circular carpet, obscuring the bare soil from view. The harvester then quietly backs away from the mass of nuts and moves on to the next tree, rhythmically shaking and moving until each tree has disgorged its bounty. Soon enough, the entire orchard floor is covered with raw pecans, including some nuts that still have their green shuck attached.

A sweeper is used to gently move the nuts across the dirt and accumulate them in a single long pile, or windrow. The orchard floor must be properly prepared for this task; the condition that we try to achieve is best described as being "like a pool table top". If the ground is too soft, the nuts will lodge in the dirt and escape the clutches of our harvester, destined to become winter fodder for the gang of wild turkeys that patrols our orchard.

The opportunity to harvest nuts from trees comes once a year; the revenue that will keep this orchard operating for the next year has to be earned in a short twenty day period. The specialized harvest equipment, cleaned and serviced for the once a year duty that it will see, needs to perform flawlessly, as any breakdown can delay the harvest, and create another set of challenges. A pecan's primary purpose is to create another generation of trees, and given enough time and exposure to moisture, the pecan will sprout. Only our timely harvesting and gentle drying keeps this from happening.

As the harvest approaches, we are grateful that we have a crop of pecans on our trees and that we have had good rainfall this summer, perhaps breaking the drought that has haunted this region for the last decade. Our trees are healthy, seeming to respond well to the organic methods that we are employing. And we can smile just a little bit, knowing that we are helping to provide healthy food to a hungry planet.

 


 

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