Cracking the organic nut
Pecan grower Sally Harper has led the way toward organic management and marketing for this traditional southern New Mexican crop

By Dan Brannen, Jr.

June 1, 2004:

“I’m a freak.”

Widowed pecan grower Sally Harper is describing her life in the arid orchards surrounding Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“I’m a woman farmer, and an organic farmer at that. When I started here, the tractor parts guy would brush me off.”

That was in 1986, when Harper and husband Wilmer, who died of cancer in 2001, bought a 15 year-old, 30-acre Western Schley pecan orchard to get out of suburbia and raise their three children where they could also raise organic food for nourishment.

“I read Rodale’s little organic magazine in the 1970s,” recalls Harper, “and I was raised with organic gardening and market farming in a Colorado community of frugal, first-generation Germans. We didn’t have any money for inputs. You spread manure, seeded, and off you went!”

This upbringing gave Harper the opportunity to compare low-input farming with the higher-input farming of later generations. Today she has no room to plant additional seeds for market on her fully used acreage, but she still spreads plenty of manure, along with the gospel of organic farming. Those habits have allowed her to grow from beginning farmer to certified organic handler for twelve pecan growers in New Mexico and Texas.

An organic transplant

The orchard Harper bought in 1986 had been managed by a farmer who never sprayed pesticides and who used inorganic fertilizers only sparingly. Harper describes him as an old-timer, someone whose philosophy was, “Let the bugs eat what they need.” This early approach to pest control likely accounts for the orchard’s current population of beneficial insects, which control most of the pest problems that the conventional farmers in this area struggle with each year.

"Our welfare in the future pretty much depends on the health of our dirt. That’s about as straight-forward as you can get."

The Harpers’ decision to farm organically made theirs one of only two such commercial pecan orchards in New Mexico at the time, the other being that of Sam Calhoun. Like all good farmers, Sally and Wilmer learned by doing, and by grabbing useful information wherever they could find it. They drew upon experience with pecan trees in their yard at a prior home in Oklahoma. As an agricultural economist at New Mexico State University (NMSU), Wilmer had easy access to research and other publications. J. O. Charles, a nearby farmer who used chemicals minimally, served as a mentor for the Harpers.

Although farming organically, the Harpers initially sold their pecans on to the conventional retail market. Sally was anxious to dive into the organic market, but Wilmer asked her to wait until he could find time in his busy university schedule to do a feasibility study.

“Well,” says Harper, “in the early '90s, I shelled out 1000 pounds as pesticide-free and sold them in one month. The next year I shelled out 5000 pounds, again they sold quickly. The third year, while my husband was overseas for university work, I said, I’ve been waiting three years for this feasibility study. I’ve already done it.”

Harper shelled that whole crop for the pesticide-free market and sold it with no problem.

Then in 1994, with help and encouragement from Fred Kirschenmann of Farm Verified Organic in North Dakota, Harper took the next step and had her farm certified organic.

“Pesticide-free means nothing,” according to Harper. “It says, I say I don’t spray. The national organic certification program gives customers confidence in the product and puts all organic labeling and production on a level playing field.”

Markets and middlemen

In the beginning, Harper’s market was entirely to retailers, whose price premiums range from 25 to 30 percent. Harper rattles off the benefits of farm-to-retail like someone who has thought this through in uncounted hours atop the tractor.

“I get more money, I pay my farmers more, the customer pays a little less, and they get a fresher product. Pecans that sit around in a warehouse get darker through rancidity. Many people think that’s what a good pecan is supposed to look and taste like because most pecans sold in conventional retail outlets have been poorly stored for lengthy times.”

Del Valle Pecans are stored in a freezer immediately after processing and shipped directly from the freezer to retail outlets. In a freezer, pecans will maintain their freshness and quality up to two years, according to Harper.

The secret to selling to her early customers--which included the chain Wild Oats in Santa Fe, N.M., and various independent health food stores in Denver and Texas--was establishing good personal relationships with the bulk buyers. Finding those buyers in the last days before the Internet meant scouring phone books and making trips to likely outlets, meeting with people in person. Harper laments that those days are on the decline as brokers and distributors, which now account for 30 percent of her sales, replace direct relationships with retail buyers.

“The bottom line for most of the middlemen is money. My pet peeve is that they’re not even required to be certified. I recently asked a major broker if he’d be going to an organic trade show, and he said, what would I want to go there for? I miss the older, hard-core organic guys, who knew what this is about.”

Harper has ideas, though not easy solutions, for some of her concerns.

"Farmers need to self-police. As a farmer and marketer, I do not sell to wholesalers who do not educate themselves about organic production."

“Farmers need to self-police. As a farmer and marketer, I do not sell to wholesalers who do not educate themselves about organic production. American Health & Nutrition is a great operation in Michigan started by twin brothers who care.”

Farmers also need to organize, which Harper says is sometimes difficult for the independent spirits among them. This year she and her fellow growers formed the New Mexico Pecan Growing Association, but it met only once.

“When farmers have to organize something,” observes Harper, “they run out of time.”

Around 1995, Harper began handling the pecans from organic grower Sam Calhoun under the name Del Valle Pecans. From there, Sally, Wilmer, and Sam worked to recruit other farmers to go organic, and some came on their own through word-of-mouth. Harper admits that while some of her suppliers are motivated by environmental concerns, others are more concerned about money.

“There are economic facts of life here,” she says.

Despite the inroads made by distributors, Harper still sells 70 percent of 160,000 pounds of shelled pecans to over 200 retailers nationwide, from Whole Foods in California to La Montañita Co-op in Albuquerque. Perhaps self-policing by consumers will also affect the direction that marketing takes for Del Valle Pecans.

In the orchards

When she gets tired of marketing, Harper goes for what she calls tractor therapy.

“Some of our best marketing ideas have been conceived while mowing or disking. Nobody’s bugging you on the phone when you’re on the tractor. As long as you don’t hit a tree, you don’t have to worry about anything.”

Disking, in fact, is not only a component of soil fertility in Harper’s orchards, but may hold a key to reducing farm-based air pollution. As in most pecan groves, Harper and Wilmer burned their annual prunings when they started in 1986. The collective pollution caused by area orchards has moved the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to approach the New Mexico Department of Agriculture for alternatives to burning.

In the early '90s, J. O. Charles gave Harper the idea of shredding her prunings after harvest and disking them into the soil in early spring.

“When the extension agent heard this,” remembers Harper, “he started writing that we were going to destroy our nitrogen supply and incorporate toxins into the soil, which happens if you disk walnut prunings into an orchard floor.” Now, she says, a multi-year study by Dr. William Linderman of the NMSU Department of Agronomy and Horticulture shows that in pecan orchards, the practice does not harm the nitrogen supply, does not produce significant toxins, and does not result in shreddings floating up into harvest machinery.

For the last decade, Harper has disked in shreddings and aged manure each spring and burned only deadwood at her farm. Rudy Garcia of the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Albuquerque once told Harper he’s never seen so much organic matter around here. Her OM content is 2.2 percent, above the average range of .6–2.1% for the area.

Because Harper waters using Southwest-style flood irrigation, cover crops do not seem to be a viable option for soil health. Fellow farmer Sam Calhoun tried vetches and clovers one year, but they did not survive the flooding. So Harper just lets natural, herbaceous, grassy vegetation grow on the orchard floor and mows it periodically, letting the clippings fall where they may. The vegetation limits wind erosion and harbors beneficial insects.

Without inorganic chemicals or leguminous cover crops, Harper still searches for a way to increase nitrogen in her soils. Tests indicate that her nitrogen is at the lower end of the conventionally recommended range, though she realizes that a chemical fertilizer company is the source of that recommendation. Harper bought compost from Sam Calhoun for a few years, which allowed nitrogen to creep up steadily, but eventually it proved financially unsustainable. Memories from childhood have Harper thinking about doing her own vermicomposting if she can find land for it.

“There was an old cowboy on the next farm who had worm beds that I helped turn by hand. That yard went from minimal to lush. While helping turn the beds, I came to learn the basics of soil composition and the need to preserve soil quality, as well as heard really good stories about the last days of the cattle drives.”

Harper is also intrigued by a Mexican farmer and doctor named Julio Cesar Harsanyi, who is exploring organics through vermicomposting out of concern for regional cancer rates in Delicias, Mexico. As Harper understands the system, Harsanyi and his father have rows of vermicompost with a swimming pool at the end. When they water the compost, the rows drain into the pool to make a kind of compost solution, similar to compost tea, which they use as a foliar nitrogen spray in addition to the compost for the following crop year.

Farming for the future

With her husband deceased and her three children scattered across the United States, Harper looks forward to the day when at least two of them might return to the farm. Eldest child Laura is an occupational therapist in Pennsylvania who handled marketing when Wilmer was ill with cancer. Daughter Brooke is finishing her degree in fashion design and exploring the organic clothing industry. Son Todd comes back from Colorado every year to manage the harvest.

Preparing for the flood: Sally Harper uses a number of techniques to conserve water in her desert orchards. Laser-leveling uses lasers and a land plane to make orchard floors as smooth as possible for flood irrigation. Cinder block dissipaters outside irrigation gates prevent floodwaters from eroding the floor. And by switching from small gates to high-flow gates, Harper cut her three-hour flooding time for a four-acre orchard down to forty minutes, reducing loss via evaporation.

“My son is an aerospace engineer, but his heart is really into farming. I insisted that my kids get a degree and other experience. It’s comparative analysis. When you see the isolated role you play in a large corporation, you come to appreciate the start-to-finish perspective that you get on a farm.”

"I insisted that my kids get a degree and other experience. It’s comparative analysis. When you see the isolated role you play in a large corporation, you come to appreciate the start-to-finish perspective that you get on a farm."
Todd, who likes to design machinery, might be able to help solve the perennial problem of harvest dust. The EPA and neighboring communities complain about the dust each year, and workers have to use respirators or masks during the harvest. Sally and Todd have the inkling of an idea for a spraying device to settle the dust.

Meanwhile, local uneasiness with Harper’s organic farming has tempered over the years.

“Our previous extension agent wrote an article saying organic pecans were lower quality. Now it has changed, organic is starting to talk, in dollars per acre and quality. After eighteen years of good humor, good credit, and customer loyalty, I have established a wonderful working relationship with most of our suppliers. And I have a neighbor who is going organic. He said to me, there ain’t one iota of difference between yours and mine.”

Harper, though, knows the difference.

“If I’m raising my children here, do I want to fly pesticides over? I don’t think so. Where you find sincere interest in organics is people who actually live on the farm. You have to be involved, looking at the trees, seeing the results, seeing your neighbors’ chemical trees, to appreciate the importance of organic. Our welfare in the future pretty much depends on the health of our dirt. That’s about as straight-forward as you can get.”