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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…”.

Written on Tuesday, 19 October 2004 00:00 by Bob Ackerley