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.
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
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
“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
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. 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
“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
“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.
“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 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