A group of South African pecan producers and role-players in the pecan industry, recently joined Rover Tours on a visit to the Southwestern United States (US), a major pecan-producing region. The tour was hosted in cooperation with FarmBiz, Rovic Leers, Bester, InteliGro and Netafim South Africa and included several farm and processing plant visits, the 51st annual Western Pecan Growers’ Association (WPGA) conference and factory visits to Flory, COE and Netafim.

Learning from experience

One of the farm visits was to Stahmann Pecan. Sally Stahmann-Solis, president of Stahmann Pecan, encouraged South African farmers to investigate new technologies and farming methods and learn from lessons the US industry have already learned. “A young industry gives you the opportunity to implement some of these technologies and methods and learn from others’ experience,” she said.

“We are able to take home several lessons from the tour, especially on pruning and hedging practices. We also have a lot to learn regarding mechanisation,” explained Rapie Visser, general manager of the Bester Fruit and Nuts Vaalharts Depot. During the visit, it was clear that there has been a paradigm shift in the US pecan industry regarding practices followed.

In a 1999 study, Dr Bruce Woods, research leader at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Southeastern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory, wrote: “A pecan husbandry paradigm shift is becoming increasingly likely due to a cost-price squeeze that is causing farming operations to become unprofitable.”

Over several years, this paradigm shift ushered in a new era in the US pecan industry, driven by significant market growth stimulated by factors such as increased demand from China and greater emphasis on health value.

Old industry

Getting a view of the modern US pecan industry, the South African tour group found that it is well-established, yet still finding itself in a phase of growth and renewal. There are numerous old orchards and new plantings too. As we travelled through New Mexico and Arizona, the view would change from large older trees to smaller younger trees.

An older pecan orchard in New Mexico.
A young pecan orchard under Arizona skies.

Gustav Bester, director of the Bester Group, shared his impression: “It is an old and well-established industry, with trees older than 80 years. A realisation that one has to manage trees as production units rather than simply letting them grow, is what caught my eye. This would be the main message for South African farmers.

“Trees are occasionally left to grow too big, negatively affecting yield size and quality. We have learned to hedge and prune earlier, in order to have a manageable production unit that produces a better, fuller nut and a higher, more consistent yield.”

Hedging harmony

There is much debate on the right age to start pruning and hedging, the correct frequency of hedging, optimal spacing of trees etc. With this in mind, the WPGA conference brought together a grower’s panel to discuss pecan orchard hedging and share their own strategies. The clear message was that trees should be kept compact and orchards are to be more densely planted.

Stahmann Pecan

“We started in this area around the 1920s, when my grandfather and great-grandfather came up here to grow cotton. A truckload of pecan trees came buy that somebody couldn’t take and they decided to take it. That is how we got started in the pecan business,” says Sally Stahmann-Solis.

From the left are the Stahmann staff, Alejandro Salinas, Sally Stahmann-Solis, Alberto Solis and Aquiles Torres.The farm sees 3 200 acres planted with pecan trees, mostly planted in 30 x 30ft spacing – 48 trees per acre. To flood-irrigate the orchards, the Stahmann farm sources its water from the Rio Grande river through a canal system and has 20 wells across the farm. According to Alejandro Salinas, farm manager, total production varies between five and nine million pounds per annum. This depends on whether it is a high- or low-production year, as alternative yield manifests to some extent. “Average yield is 1 600 pounds per acre in a low-production year and up to 2 500 pounds per acre in a high-production year.”

In the past, the Stahmanns pruned and hedged trees on an ad hoc basis alone, amounting to approximately 10% of the farm per year. “We however saw that the size and quality of our harvest were on a downward trend and realised that a more aggressive pruning and hedging plan was necessary. It is now five years later, and in each of the previous four years a quarter of the farm was pruned and hedged. In the most recent harvest, after an initial drop in yield, we have truly begun to see the impact of more aggressive hedging in the size and quality of the nuts.”

The tour group during the visit to the farm of a producer, Dicky Salopek (in front in the middle).

Salopek Farms

“We planted these trees in 1969. It is going well with the farm, but if we pruned and hedged sufficiently from the start and kept the trees short, we would have been much further ahead now.” This was the main message from Dicky Salopek of Salopek Farms.

He fully supports the movement for more densely planted, compact trees and explains that planning the spacing of trees is a numbers game. “Every move you make will have an effect, and an increase in one aspect will always have a corresponding decrease. This means that you must find the balance, the so-called ‘sweet spot’ where optimal yield can be achieved. It takes time to figure out and you have to find what works for you, but it really helps to look to older farms and learn from them.”

He explains that they have orchards planted in different spacings across the farm, such as 30 x 30ft and 30 x 15ft, but have found 33 x 20ft to be the best option for them. “This, of course, is greatly influenced by your hedging regime and many other factors. The industry is increasingly moving to smaller trees and more per acre, away from large trees widely spaced.

“It makes sense to produce with higher intensity, with a shorter, fatter tree with a good central leader branch and more trees per acre. As we made this shift, our average yield increased from around 2 500 to 3 500 pounds per acre. We have also seen less of an alternative yield. In some of our newer plantings, we have kept the trees compact from the start.

“Changing farming circumstances forced us to make this shift. You have to have a good average crop every year rather than good and bad years. Looking at a tree after pruning and hedging, it seems like there might be nothing left, but four years later it is a beautiful tree with an excellent yield.

“Regarding the best size to keep trees at, the stage you achieved the best production is your answer. My advice to newcomers is to do your homework before putting any trees in the ground. Collect as much information as you can to ensure that you do not burn your fingers or repeat the mistakes of other farmers.”

He notes that there are many opinions on hedging, spacing, varieties, tree ages and many other related issues. The fact is that you must implement a practice that works for your particular operation. “Therefore, after consulting with more experienced farmers and collected all the information possible, trial and error is the best way to achieve optimal production.”

Farmers’ Investment Company

The definite advantage of achieving economy of scale, as well as the privilege of being able to take lessons learned in older orchards and applying them as you reinvest in the industry, were aspects witnessed by visiting the Farmers’ Investment Company (Fico) orchards in San Simon and Sahuarita, Arizona. Following the previous two farm visits in New Mexico, orchard visits in Arizona presented certain differences, especially in the many young orchards where reformed farming practices are being applied from the outset.

“One of our greatest advantages is that we can take what we learned in our orchards that are 80 years and older, and apply this knowledge in our new developments,” explains Allen Brandt of Green Valley Pecan, which forms part of Fico.

These new developments are substantial, as more than 200ha have already been added to the more than 1 300ha of orchards on one of the farms in the San Simon area in 2017 alone. One of the factors that allows development on such large scale, is that all of the trees are grown in the company’s own nursery.

FarmBiz met up with Brian Driscoll in one of the newer orchards.

Flood irrigation is not used in the new orchards as is the case in most of the older ones. Brian Driscoll, farm manager of Fico’s San Simon development, explains that sprinkler irrigation offers greater advantages and was preferred as the infrastructure was put in place before the trees were planted. “Our irrigation system has a 16-foot spray pattern, which is slightly wider than usual but works well in our conditions where cover crops are a necessity.

“Crops such as clover and barley are cultivated between the rows to hold the soil in place. We live in a very windy region and keeping cover on the ground is essential. The cover crop further helps improve soil health. It is worked back into the soil as organic material. We also till as little as possible, allowing us to maintain 2,4% organic matter although we are in the desert.

“The focus is on compact, strong trees, with a good central leader, that are managed well to ensure optimal productivity. This is, of course, the main lesson taken from experiences in the older orchards, where money and time is now being invested to bring the older trees back to optimal productivity.”

Brandt explains that the original plantings were done in 15 x 30ft spacing to ensure initial high production. These orchards would then later be thinned to 30 x 30, 30 x 60 and even 60 x 60ft as the trees became bigger. “This was in the 80s. These methods resulted in alternate bearing, unmanageably large trees and declining yield quality and quantity.

“In hindsight, we should have implemented a proper hedging programme earlier, but currently we are hedging and topping 25% of the farm per year and planting new trees between older existing rows in orchards to once again increase orchard density. A lot of the hedging in fact becomes tree renovation, as many of the older trees had never been hedged properly. Hedging these old trees opened up the spaces between the rows and gave us a lot of new growth.”

Pecans keep the doctor away

One of the presentations during the WPGA conference focused on the nutritional and health value of pecan nuts. Dr Ronald Pegg, food technologist at the University of Georgia, shared important information and emphasised the marketing potential of data on pecan nut health benefits.

He shared results from several studies on the impact pecan nut consumption can have on our health and kicked off the presentation with a graph that shows results indicating that eating nuts (not only pecan) one to four times a week, can significantly lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Data shows that pecans are packed with antioxidants, are a good source of fibre, trans fat-free, cholesterol-free, sodium-free, and contain a significant amount of protein as well as many vitamins and minerals.

Read more about this here.

Sharing his impressions following the tour, South African pecan farmer, Dries Duvenhage, said the group has learned a lot and still has much to learn from the US pecan industry. “I do think we have a lot to thank our American friends for, but I also feel we are not too far behind. There are certain aspects where we are ahead of the game, such as irrigation and implementing new technologies. Other aspects however, such as local marketing and industry cooperation, can be improved.”

A nutty adventure to the US Southwest

“You have to get off the farm. It is extremely valuable to attend conferences, farmers’ days, speak to other farmers and collect knowledge as far as you go.” These were the words of Gary Arnold of a New Mexico, pecan producer and processor, Arnold Brothers, to the group of South African pecan farmers during the tour.

This is exactly what the group of South African farmers did – going beyond the farm to increase their knowledge to become better producers.

Learning from the masters

The South African pecan industry is an emerging one and has shown steady growth over the last decade. Much of this growth is taking place in the Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme in the Hartswater district of the Northern Cape. The farmers had numerous questions to ask the US producers and pecan experts. The tour group visited orchards in New Mexico and Arizona, two of the largest pecan-producing states in the US with a long history in pecan production.

There are 15 states in the US that produce pecan nuts commercially. This adds up to approximately 15 000 pecan growers across these states, ranging from small- to large-scale. “Our domestic crop hovers around 300 million pounds per year,” said Kevin Ivey, president of the Western Pecan Growers’ Association (WPGA). The WPGA hosted the #RoverUSpecan group for part of their tour, as they attended the 51st annual WPGA conference.

Achieving success

The conference saw many key topics discussed, and presented South African farmers and role-players with the opportunity for to interact with experts across the US pecan nut value chain and research industry. Important issues were discussed, such as pollination in pecans, conducting on-farm trials, going from flood to micro irrigation, hedging strategies, using drones in pecan orchards, the health benefits of pecans and more.

“I focused on teaching growers how to conduct tests and do research in their orchards in manners that would produce statistically reliable information. This includes conducting studies with replications in order to achieve such results, enabling them to statistically compare two different treatments,” commented Prof Jim Walworth, soil extension specialist at the University of Arizona (UA), following his presentation on conducting research in orchards.

Prof Walworth alluded to the fact that the US agricultural industry is fortunate to have an active cooperative extension service. “Extension service takes research onto farm level and we are very lucky to have it. I work for a university, but all of my research is done in commercial orchards where growers can be involved and experience results first-hand. There is very good contact between researchers and growers across the industry.” – Marike Brits, Farmbiz

Follow the #RoverUSpecan hashtag on Facebook and Twitter for photographs, videos, interviews and more from the tour.