While millions of people are getting ready to enjoy pecan pies for Thanksgiving, Sahuarita farmer Richard Walden and his crews at Farmers Investment Co. are getting ready for the upcoming holiday by preparing for their annual pecan harvest.
Walden, 69, is the president of the company his father Keith started in 1937 in California, which became Farmers Investment Co. FICO, which includes the Green Valley Pecan Co. and Santa Cruz Valley Organic Farms, is now the largest pecan grower/processor and the largest certified organic grower/processor of pecans in the world.
Walden has been involved in the farming business since he started helping out on his father’s cotton farm in Arizona at about age 8. He helped do mechanical work on the trucks and tractors, did welding, harvested the crops, irrigated the fields and applied herbicides.
“I did just about every job that was available during the time I was available,” Walden said. “My father was a very progressive, forward-thinking person.”
Walden said that his father, who died in 2002, taught him “all of the aspects of really running a business.”
Keith Walden originally grew citrus in California but switched to cotton in 1946. In 1948, he moved his operation to Arizona, where he could get more farmland for his money.
He bought property in the area where the farm now sits in Sahuarita and continued to grow cotton, as well as alfalfa and barley.
During the ’50s, “he was concerned that synthetic fibers might put cotton out of business,” Richard Walden said. “At that point in time people were not aware that synthetic fibers had a different comfort factor than natural fibers such as cotton, wool or silk.”
So Keith Walden experimented with a variety of other crops to grow instead of cotton, including different tree nuts and fruits. Pecans and grapes fared the best, but he chose pecans because they could be harvested by machine and could be kept in cold storage.
Between 1965 and 1969, Keith Walden planted Western Schley and Wichita pecan trees on about 5,000 acres of land. In 1975, the processing plant opened.
Today the pecan groves span 4,500 acres, 1,100 of which are certified organic.
China buying up pecans
The pecan’s increasing popularity in China has caused its price to skyrocket in the last few years, and Walden estimated that the Chinese are buying 15 to 20 percent of the world’s supply of pecans.
Because demand from the Chinese has caused a shortage in supplies, customers who were paying $3 to $4 per pound for shelled pecans five years ago are now paying $6 to $7 a pound, Walden said.
However, Roger Hooper, a third-generation farmer from Casa Grande who manages the Sahuarita farm, said China is more interested in buying whole pecans.
“Because we’re a processer and we take the shells off, we don’t sell a lot of pecans to China,” he said.
Walden, who speaks Spanish comfortably to communicate with some of his employees, said his company does sell pecans to China, but most of his customers are in the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark and France.
“We’ve developed a clientele, and therefore we don’t have the flexibility to jump into the Chinese market unless we were to abandon some of our longstanding customers, and that just doesn’t seem to be a wise choice,” he said.
Harvest season is intense
The harvest season for pecans begins at the end of November, and it’s an intense time of year for farm employees.
“We try to start right after Thanksgiving because the processing plant is usually running low on pecans,” Hooper said.
The harvest usually lasts until the end of January. There are 65 full-time employees that work on the farm year-round, and an additional 40 people are hired each season to help with the harvest.
“We have to wait until the trees freeze or at least get a hard freeze so we can get all the leaves off before we start harvesting,” Hooper said, standing in the shade of a row of pecan trees. Hooper, 61, has worked with FICO since 1999.
Pecan trees alternate each year between producing a large crop and a smaller crop. This year is an “on” or large crop year on FICO’s farm, and Hooper expects to harvest between 11 and 12 million pounds of pecans.
To harvest the pecans, a machine called a shaker travels between the rows of trees and grips each tree as high as it can. Then the machine shakes the tree for three to five seconds, which makes the pecans fall to the ground. Each tree is shaken at least twice, once on each side.
“It’ll rain pecans,” Hooper said. If you’re standing on the ground nearby “you will feel the ground move, you’ll actually feel like a mini-earthquake.”
Once the trees have been shaken, people must walk through the rows and pick up any sticks that have fallen from the tree so they will not damage the equipment. Next, a machine called a rake, which is mounted on the front of a tractor, moves all of the pecans and debris that have fallen from the trees into a windrow or line. A harvester machine uses a conveyor belt to pick up the material, and a blower removes the dirt and leaves before transferring the pecans into a harvest cart. When the cart gets full, a machine called a runner empties it.
From there the material is brought to the cleaning plant. Here, any debris such as wood chips is separated from the pecans. The pecans are then cracked, shelled, sorted and packaged in the processing facility.
The Green Valley Pecan Co. processes about 28 million pounds of pecans per year, which keeps its processing plant going year-round. About half of the building is cold storage. In addition to processing its own pecans, the company also processes pecans from Mexico, New Mexico and Texas.
Into the future
Earlier this year, FICO submitted plans to the town of Sahuarita that would allow for a master-planned community to be developed on its 12 miles of land. The plan would include residential, retail and office space to be built over the next 50 years, while preserving the Santa Cruz River.
Walden said it could take 12 to 24 months for the plan to be approved. If and when the project will begin will be completely market-driven, he said, noting that the housing market is still poor.
Despite plans for future development, Walden said he does not foresee the end the company’s pecan farming. “I think there will forever be portions of this property that will continue to be farmed,” he added.
And if not, the company also has about 2,200 acres of pecan groves in San Simon in southeastern Arizona. In fact, about 33,000 3-year-old pecan trees from the FICO’s nursery in Sahuarita will be transplanted to San Simon in January or February.
“We’ll be producing pecans long after this area might be developed,” Walden said.