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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.

Written on Friday, 17 September 2004 00:00 by Bob Ackerley