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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.

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Early pecan growth.

Our trees have already set their nuts; here’s a detailed look at the process…

The first image shows a healthy spike with six nutlets (five visible and one partially obscured). All pecan nuts form on the terminal end of a branch; we like to see three or four nuts per spike. Six nutlets may be an early indication that this tree will have too large of a nut load.

It is important to note that there is no insect damage on these nuts. The first insect to attack our trees is the pecan nut casebearer; this worm eats its way into the young nutlet, and causes the tree to abort the nut.

At this time, May 9, 2005, all of the trees are fully leafed out. We hope to see eight to ten inches of new growth on each branch over the growing season. We have an extensive fertility program to improve the quality of our soil. This year, we spread about six tons of cow manure per acre. We also incorporated two rock substances that were mined; a phosphate and a humic acid.

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A long winter.

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.

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Economic realities.

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!

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Rocks, sticks, and dirt.

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…”.

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The harvest looms.

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.