Lessons from a Couple of Family Farms

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Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to participate in the annual conference for county agricultural extension agents. Among the awards ceremonies, association business, and administrative updates, we had some very insightful tours of some local agricultural producers in the town that hosted us, Wichita Falls, Texas.

Some of the tours that I was a part of included a visit to a pecan orchard, and a hydroponic lettuce operation. Both of these places had to focus a heavy emphasis on quality, marketing, pest control, and managing their growth over the years.

The Montz Pecan Orchard was several hundred acres in size. They decided to get in the pecan business and plant an orchard in 1987. They are not a large corporation, but their home office is exactly that – their home, located in the middle of the original 220-acre 8,000-tree pecan orchard. Today, the Montz family continues to plant more and new varieties of paper-shell pecans. Presently, they are just over 27,000 pecan trees on 800 acres.

The family spoke about the markets, the quality of their pecans, and some of the major pests that they had to contend with. Most of their pecans were sold wholesale and in fact many of them are shipped abroad on the international market. They spoke about water management, fertilization, and extensively on pest control. Pests in a pecan orchard include the smallest of insects up to the largest of mammals. Interestingly, when asked by the tour group of agricultural agents as to what the biggest problem was that faced their farm, our guide replied quickly it was feral hogs.

I must admit that I was a little surprised that feral hogs would be his number one problem. But he adamantly assured us that they absolutely were. This pecan orchard was not far from the Red River where the hogs reside, and he chuckled as he told us that they can hear when a pecan hits the ground at their farm two miles away.

These wild pigs can easily consume vast quantities of pecans and root up the orchard floor. This rooting creates conditions that not only hurt tree roots but require extra dirt work to level the soil for harvest equipment to do their work.

It is common practice for a pecan orchard to shake their trees and let the crop fall to the ground and cure or dry out. But with hogs in the picture that’s simply not possible. Pecans are shaken and immediately harvested and thus require curing time in a secure barn war other facility.

The next farm was Youngs Greenhouses which grows lettuce hydroponically. Their family started in 1980 with one hobby greenhouse. They now have 26 large commercial greenhouses. The Young family is into their second generation of family members growing, harvesting, and shipping top-quality lettuce heads. They sell exclusively to distributors in the Dallas/Fort Worth area where their lettuce is then purchased by top chefs at higher-end restaurants.

They put the quality of their product at a premium. It’s such a premium that they don’t bat an eye at throwing out over half the heads of lettuce if they don’t meet their exacting standards.

The Youngs sell wholesale only. It doesn’t pay for them to sell lettuce heads individually at their family farm. They even chuckled at the customers that emphasized they were big buyers and then asked for six lettuce heads.

They’re often surprised, albeit pleasantly surprised, whenever one of their products is mentioned in a culinary arts magazine. Their work is cleanliness to ward off pests, repetition of work as two harvests are made each week throughout the year, and automation as much as possible to reduce the need for additional labor. It was inspiring to see how well they had treated their employees, with some employees having third-generation family members that have worked for the farm.

As a county agricultural Extension agent, it is always a real treat to see successful ventures. To see a couple of family operations that have grown over the years to be a very large and successful operation was quite a pleasure. The emphasis on quality while keeping their families involved as they cope with markets and pests of all kinds is quite the challenge for these modern-day agricultural enterprises.

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