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When the River Runs Dry…..( 2011 Update)

The Floodplain of the Nueces River; Massive Tree Death Progressing

Pecan trees are heavily dependent on a constant source of water to produce full, good tasting nuts. Deprive the tree of water at various times of the year and you get small leaves, small nuts or empty, hollow shells. There are no shortcuts when it comes to producing the type of nuts people want to bite into at Thanksgiving; the tree must get water at regular intervals throughout the growing season.

In our orchard, we have three sources of water to get us through the growing season. We normally receive 23 inches of rain throughout the year; we are located next to the Nueces River and we have a decent aquifer, the Carrizo, underneath us. We use pumps to move the water from either the river or the aquifer to the rows of thirsty, growing trees. In a normal year, we watch the radar for rain, and when we see a dry spell forecasted, we turn on the river pumps to accomplish our irrigation. And in an emergency, well, we can always pump from the deep aquifer below us.

So what could go wrong with this nice, bucolic picture? In a word…..everything. South Texas is entering year five of the drought, perhaps the worst drought of all time. It didn’t rain but 6 inches in 2008, and so far this year we have received about 3 inches of rain. The Nueces River has not had any water flowing in it during the past five years; the riverbed is a dry trail of exposed stones and baked brown dirt. It has simply stopped raining in South Texas, and we are on the verge of turning into another Dust Bowl. According to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, the rainfall between October of 2010 and May of 2011 was the lowest since record keeping began in 1895.

When knowledgeable people discuss droughts in Texas, the reference period that is usually brought up is the seven year stretch in the mid 1950’s. The writer Elmer Kelton referred to it as ” The Time It Never Rained…”. Year after year, the spring rains never came, the grass never turned green, and slowly, most of the great cattle herds were sold off or they perished. Day after day, people looked up at a brilliant blue sky, and prayed that they would see a rain cloud. And for years on end, they didn’t; there were only more hot sunny days, and a parched earth under their feet. Towards the end of the 1950’s, the state considered building a huge canal system to bring water from the rainier, eastern part of the state to the arid western part. Of course, once the rains started to fall, the project was put on a shelf somewhere to collect dust.

During the 1950’s, the state of Texas had a population of 8 million people. Today, there are over 25 million people in Texas. A number of large reservoirs were built in the 60’s, while the memory of the drought was still fresh. But as time passed, fewer reservoirs were built, and most of the ones proposed over the last forty years were stopped by local groups that wanted no change to their environment. The result of this indifference as the drought worsens is predictable; the fight over every existing source of water is growing.

When it comes to entities that are habitually short of water, the City of San Antonio sits in a league all by itself. From a hydrological perspective, San Antonio sits atop a small sliver of the environmentally sensitive Edwards aquifer. It doesn’t take much pumping to threaten the flow at two historic springs, the San Marcos Springs and Barton Springs, and so the city simply cannot expand their production of ground water. There are limited supplies of surface water, and in fact the famed Riverwalk would run dry if the tail water wasn’t recirculated to the beginning of the watercourse as it winds its way through the downtown section.

Over the years, San Antonio has proposed a number of whacky solutions to help solve its water woes. One solution sought to pump water from the Colorado River in Matagorda County through a 170 mile pipeline to the city. This would have required the water to be lifted uphill, as the elevation difference between the river and the city was over 700 feet. The energy needed to pump this water, day in and day out, was enormous, and so this plan was quietly shelved. Well, maybe not so quietly, as the City has filed suit against the proposed supplier of water, the LCRA, leaving suitor and suitee locked in a legal embrace for years to come.

More recently, San Antonio looked west, and proposed another 70 mile pipeline project that would move water from the Uvalde area to the western part of San Antonio. Now, unfortunately, in almost any part of Texas, you can find some third generation ne’er do wells who will sell water rights, easement rights for electrical transmission lines or even the aged wood off the old barn for a little beer money. The fact that this will cause hardship to all the local farmers who are still actually getting up each day and trying to earn an honest living is of little matter to these types. The Texas legislature took a look at this, and said nothing doing. So for now, this project is at a dead end, but with a growing population, San Antonio will be forced to continue its search for a source of water that will allow the city to keep its numerous car washes and water amusement parks operating.

One group has been able to jump right into the water fray and establish itself as an entity to be reckoned with. We refer, of course, to the oil industry, from the giants, such as Exxon on down to all the smaller players. With the discovery of the Eagle Ford Shale play, the south Texas region is in the midst of a massive oil boom. But unlike booms of the past, this new drilling employs the hydraulic fracturing of the rock, and massive amounts of water are required to execute this technique. With so little water available, the oil companies have been drilling numerous wells into the Carrizo aquifer. They are pumping out so much water that the aquifer level has been dropping precipitously over the past two years. Of course, the region has numerous Underground Water Conservation Districts, to restrict the drilling of new wells and ensure that the existing water users, who are mainly agricultural, continue to have a source of water. Unfortunately, most of the ag users don’t have 50 person Legal departments back in Houston, and apparently, if you are an oil company, you are exempt from all local regulations anyway. We can ony hope that some of the well funded environmental defense groups will step into the void and investigate how the oil companies have been able to establish a stranglehold on the South Texas groundwater supply.

For now, the drought continues, and each hot, sunny, 110 degree day exhausts a little bit more of our water supply. Farmers and ranchers continue to take the brunt of the pain and damage caused by the lack of rain. Some farmers, their cotton and corn crop shriveled by having no moisture during the growing season, will call it quits, and other farmers will be told by their banker to put a ‘For Sale’ sign up on the place. Those who remain will question their own sanity. It has gotten to the point where the only course of action left is to “Pray For Rain”. So, to all who enjoy eating great tasting, organic pecans, we ask that you say a small prayer; hopefully Mother Nature will do the rest.

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Tropical Storm Hermine Misses Orchard…

Tropical Storm Hermine Misses Orchard...
Tropical Storm Hermine Misses Orchard

Tropical Storm Hermine moved through South Texas early on Tuesday morning, September 7th. We are very fortunate that the storm passed to the east of the orchard, and the heavy rain and winds did not materialize in either RGO orchard. The original projected path of the storm would have passed right over the Crystal City, Tx area, and the storm could have potentially reeked havoc on the pecan crop. At this time, the trees are already straining under the heavy pecan crop load, and additional weight from the rain, combined with high wind, would have broken many limbs. Once again, we are reminded that there are many risks involved in the production of food, and we certainly can’t control the path of a tropical storm.

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Rio Grande Organics Pecans Used In New Breakfast Cereal……

Rio Grande Organics Pecans Used In New Breakfast Cereal......
Nature’s Path Organic Flax Plus Maple Pecan Crunch Cereal

We are happy to update our customers that you can now enjoy our organic pecan pieces in a new breakfast cereal from Natures Path. The cereal, Flax Plus Maple Pecan Crunch, is a combination of toasted flax flakes and granola made with organic maple syrup and organic pecan pieces. It tastes as good as it sounds, and better still it is made with only certified organic ingredients! We hope you will try a box today, and if your local market doesn’t carry the product, please ask your grocery aisle manager to request and stock this wonderful, healthy new cereal.

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Pitching in for a community cleanup day.

Recently, Rio Grande Organics helped to organize a community cleanup day…and boy were we surprised by the number of people who turned out to pitch in!!

On February 23, 2008, over a hundred people gathered in the small town of Quemado, TX to pitch in and help cleanup the town. We filled up two garbage trucks with the litter that was picked up, and we re-painted the stands at the community baseball field. Many Rio Grande employees gave up their Saturday to participate!

As you can see in the second picture, one of the real highlights of the day was the number of children who showed up with big smiles and the energy to make it happen.

Picture three, left to right: Pete, our Quemado orchard manager, Luanne, Ky Anne, our Director of Community Relations, Bob, Tim, from Wilbur Ellis, our other main co-sponsor of the day, and Patti.

In the next image, the 50 acre field was planted with the Pawnee variety this past winter. We are planting the trees on a very dense spacing in this field, around 70 trees per acre. This will allow us to make better, more efficient use of water in the early life of these trees. When these trees are seven years old, we will use a special piece of equipment to dig up every other tree and move it to a permanent location.

Clearing work continued all throughout this past winter. Take a look at the last image and you can see how it progressed. We are clearing about 200 acres of land that will be replanted in pecan trees over the next few years. Pecan trees are native to both the Rio Grande River and the Nueces River. The southern United States and northern Mexico are the only places on the planet where pecan trees thrive. Demand for pecans in the Chinese market is doubling every year!

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Pecan Entomology 101.

People often ask us what it takes to grow pecans organically. One of the first subjects that an organic pecan grower has to master is an understanding of the insects that attack the pecan tree and the young nuts.

First shown is a nut that has been growing on the pecan tree for about six weeks. The mass of material at the base of the nut is called “frass”; it is actually feces left behind by a pecan casebearer worm as it chewed its way into the young nut. The worm is now inside the nut, eating all the soft tissue. This nut would fall off the tree in a matter of weeks, as the nut dies once a worm eats into it.

With the frass cleared away, you can clearly see the nice round hole where the worm has bored into the nut (in the second picture). We try every year to limit the damage to about 2% of the total nuts that are set on the trees. Without some type of control strategy, a pecan grower can lose between 50% and 70% of the crop to the pecan casebearer worm.

Next we can see that having been disturbed, this worm is crawling back out of the nut. Normally, the worm would morph into the pupal stage, and eventually it would emerge as a next generation moth. The moths lay eggs on branches close to the small nut. Our entomologist, Robert Sandner, scouts the orchard every two days looking for casebearer eggs. When he finds enough eggs, we spray the orchard with bT, a bacteria that is harmless to people, but is deadly to the newly hatched worms.
Next, it looks like Mr Worm is headed for the border!!

All food producers, whether conventional or organic, face challenges controlling damaging insects. In our organic farming system, we use naturally ocurring substances, as opposed to synthetic chemicals, to control damaging insects. Our system of scouting for insects is very labor intensive, and the timing of our applications of bT is critical to achieve control.

In the fifth picture, you can see where the pecan casebearer worms have damaged three out of the four nuts. If this level of damage is extensive in the orchard, then there is very little chance of having a crop at the end of the season. Fortunately, in our four years of using organic farming methods, our orchards have built up large numbers of beneficial insects, such as lady beetles and green lacewings. These insects eat the casebearer eggs, and help to control the casebearer outbreak.
Finally shown, this young pecan tree is entering its second growing season in Quemado. We are seeing some of the young branches exceed three feet of growth in one season. We are experimenting with a number of techniques to maximize the yearly growth on these young pecan trees.

Currently, most pecan trees need seven to eight growing seasons before they start to produce a harvestable crop. We are hoping that land leveling, intensive water and organic fertilizer management, and weed control will reduce this waiting period. The long period between tree planting and full nut production is one factor that keeps world nut production low, and nut prices high. As people look to add healthier items to their daily diet, the demand for tree nuts will continue to grow!

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Winter work.

Many people are under the impression that winter is a time of rest for pecan farmers…..the reality is that it just may be our busiest time of the year!

It is now late March, and our pecan trees have not yet started to put out their new leaves, a process we call ‘bud break’. The pecan tree will start to flower and put out it’s pollen producing catkins very soon after bud break. The actual pecan nuts start to form in late April, and they will be growing and developing on the tree for close to six months.

The pecan trees in Crystal City have grown to a point where their size is interfering with the growth of surrounding trees. The Crystal City orchard sits on the bank of the Nueces River, and the soil is an optimal alluvial river soil. With proper watering, these trees are capable of living for 200 years, and attaining a height of 100 feet. We have had to designate about half of our trees as permanent trees, and the rest of the trees are ‘temporary’, although temporary may turn out to be 20 years. Our men have been hard at work extensively pruning back the temporary trees, and this will allow the permanent trees to continue to grow and produce lots of nuts. Note the heavy crop of clover growing under the trees; this will help put lots of nitrogen into the soil.

At Rio Grande Organics, we embrace our responsibility to future generations. This winter, we completed the planting of 40 acres of new pecan trees. We will be old men by the time that these trees are productive and full grown, but our children will be able to enjoy the nuts that are produced. Many people talk about making the world a better place – we are busy planting trees!

Our Quemado foreman, Alan Frerich, and our whole Quemado crew did a great job planting these new trees. These young trees will depend on water from the Rio Grande River for their survival. Agriculture in the US has been under relentless pressure from developers and environmentalists, who claim that our efforts are ‘wasting water’. We like to think that watering suburban lawns and building endless car-washes is a much greater misuse of our precious resources.

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The adrenaline begins to flow…

It’s harvest time in Crystal City, and Rio Grande Organics gears up to get the precious pecan crop harvested before any weather disasters strike.

Check out how our harvest season gets under way as our tree shakers move into action. This machine clamps ahold of the tree, and uses a powerful hydraulic engine to shake the tree vigorously. The ground under this tree is littered with pecans that have just been shaken off. Note the sweepers in front of and behind each wheel; these devices gently move the pecans to the side of the wheels as the vehicle moves through the orchard.

Next, the cluster in image two shows the progression of ripening pecan nuts. The nut on the right is at the stage where the green shuck is beinning to split open along the suture lines. The nut in the left center area shows the shuck fully open and drying to a brown coloration. In the last month prior to harvest, the nuts are susceptible to shuck decline disease and the shuckworm; both will keep the shuck from opening normally and will result in damaged nut meat.

In the next cluster, all of the shucks have opened normally, and the nuts will easily fall from the tree when shaking pressure is applied. The nuts can actually remain in this loosely held position for months.

In the fourth image, our senior organic consultant, Robert Sandner, stands in front of the first load of pecans harvested in 2006. Some of the pecans are still inside of their green shuck. A special machine in our cleaning plant will remove the shucks so that the nuts can dry out and be shelled. The 2006 harvest is very special to us, as it marks the end of our three year transitional period. The pecans harvested from our Quemado, TX orchard will be our first large ‘Certified Organic’ crop.

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The Katrina Threat.

Hurricane Katrina produced wide bands of rain and high winds, and the threatening weather from the massive storm stretched all the way to South Texas.

Dark, ominous clouds from Hurricane Katrina move over the pecan orchard. The pecan limbs are already heavily loaded from the growing weight of the nuts. High winds and rain increase the strain on the limbs, and can in fact cause 70% or more of the crop to be lost.

A sky, such as the one in these images, at ten o’clock in the morning, can put great fear in the pecan grower. An entire seasons work can be lost in a matter of minutes. There is no insurance available to protect a nut grower from weather damage.Look how the outer bands of Katrina move over Quemado, Tx. Fortunately, the orchard did not suffer any major damage from the terrible Katrina storm.

Our nuts are almost fully formed by the end of August, as you can see in the last couple of pictures here. Now, the liquid material inside the nut is hardening into what we call the ‘dough stage’. Over the month of September, the ‘dough’ will harden into the final nut. The big green ‘shuck’ that you see here protects and nourishes the nut forming inside.

If you look closely at the last picture, you will see many nuts that are slightly covered by the leaves. We will start to shake the nuts out of the trees and harvest them on October 1.

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Fifty days until harvest!

We are entering the critical  ‘water stage’; this is the period during which the pecan nuts will stop growing in size and kernal development reaches a maximum.

Take a look at the first image below. The nuts are now almost full size; the critical formation of the kernal is taking place inside the hard shell. Interestingly, the nut center at this time is almost completely liquid, similar to water.

Robert Sandner is the guiding force behind the transformation of this pecan orchard to “Certified Organic“ agriculture. Robert is scouting the tree in the second image for insects; he will determine if the damaging insects are too prevalent, and what needs to be done to control them.

Next, we see another “perfect” day in Quemado, Texas; the dirt borders are up around these trees as we get ready to flood irrigate the orchard.

Marcelo de Stabile (on the left in image 4), recently joined Rio Grande Organics as an agronomist. Marcelo comes to us from Brazil, with a short stop at Texas A&M for a Masters degree. Here, he and Juan are getting ready to spray a molasses/zinc mixture on the trees.

Finally, the sun sets over one of the canals that supplies irrigation water to our orchard. Recent heavy rains in west Texas, including hurricane Emily, haved filled our main reservoir, Lake Amistad, to the top.

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As the nuts grow….

The pecan trees have set a nice crop; it is up to us to bring it to fruition…

With the start of summer upon us, we appear to have a good nut set on our trees. The insect pressure in our orchard, which is always one of the big threats to reduce the crop, is very low at this time.

The first image below shows one of the larger clusters that we have in our orchard, with a total of six nuts. Most of our clusters have two or three nuts. If all of the clusters had five or six nuts, we would have to mechanically reduce the nut load in July by shaking each heavily loaded tree. These nuts are free from insect damage, and the green shuck, the outer covering of the nut, is developing normally.

The trees in the second image have healthy leaf set, which is critical for normal nut development. We don’t use synthetic chemical fertilizer in our orchard; we use cow manure, and various ground-up rock products to provide potassium and phosphate. In normal fertilizer, the phosphate is water soluble, and much of it washes away with the rain to pollute local waterways. Rock based phosphate releases slowly over a long time period, reducing the amount that leaves the orchard with either rain or irrigation run-off.

The third close-up shot shows a nut cluster forming at almost every terminal branch, indicating that this tree is loaded with pecans. One of the greatest challenges for all pecan growers is the mystery of alternate bearing, whereby trees alternate a heavy crop one year with a light or non-existent crop the following year.

The following picture shows a limb so loaded with nuts that it is already sagging towards the ground. In pecan orchards, limbs often get so heavy with developing nuts that they actually break off from the tree late in the season!

Work is currently underway to get the orchard floor smooth for the fall harvest. In conventional orchards, vegetation is controlled by spraying glyphosate, which insantly kills many grasses and broadleaf species. The effect of glyphosate on the bacteria and microbial life in the soil is unknown. In organic farming, having a healthy, balanced soil is our number one priority.