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