Acotanc: Pecans in WA

Pecans in WA

Author: Bernie Rochester
Mobile: 018-341 457
Organization: Mumballup Pecan Shelling Co
90 Bucktin St Collie WA 6225
Phone: +61 8-97341309 Fax: +61 8-97343343
Work phone: +61 8 9780 6394
ATCROS Reference: 3135

About the requirements of pecan trees and various issues associated with growing and marketing pecans in WA.

I am an electrician by trade. I had an interest in farming since I was very small. My uncles had properties around WA, I used to go up there on holidays and mess around on farms. I was always interested in getting a bit of land for myself, but I had to wait a long time to do that. We managed to buy some land, then sold it, and in 1980 we bought the property we have now. On it was a block of 800 pecan trees which had just been planted. The advice from the Agriculture Department in those days was to pull them out and get rid of them. Don’t have anything to do with them–they will never be any good. Anyway, somehow they survived and things have progressed from there.

We were lucky enough to win a scholarship to go to America and we did a few weeks of study about pecans at the University of New Mexico. We moved around the southern states of America looking at properties and the way they do things. The only thing about America is the size; they are talking thousand acre blocks of pecans, whereas we are probably talking twenty acre blocks. They are lucky in that they have the water and rivers. WA is such a dry state that water is going to be a major problem. The average adult pecan tree will need 300 gallons a day for six months of the year. If you haven't got water on your property, I would say, forget it.

Pecans like a lot of water, but they don't particularly like wet feet all the time. You have to plant in an area where the water will run away quickly, which means, gravelly-loam, sandy soils, thin soils where the water can run down through the ground very rapidly and dissipate. They do have a very long tap root, so if you have underground water, that is a good thing. The tree will grow. But because the feeder roots of the tree are on the surface, you have to wet the surface of the ground all the time, and it has to remain wet throughout the whole growing season. As your tree gets bigger and bears more nuts, you have to apply more and more water. We commenced with 8-litre drippers for ours and now we have got up to putting on 70 litres an hour for ten hours a day, which is 700 litres a day per tree. We start when the rain stops, a few days after it stops raining in October, and we are still watering in May. That will give the trees a couple of weeks to cure before we harvest.

Don't plant in wet areas. You think you are doing well, but it will only burn the feeder roots. The tree may grow, but if the tap root won't penetrate because it is too wet, the tree will blow over in a big wind. This happens in America quite regularly.

They recommend only two varieties to plant in WA: West Australian Wichita and Western Schley. Two rows of Schley to one of Wichita. The only problem with Wichita is that it is very prone to wind damage. You need to do a lot of pruning in the early years on Wichita. We have a majority of Western Schley. I don't know who designed our orchards but whoever it was was reasonably smart. When I talk about wind damage, the winds this year haven't been particularly strong, but you can see we have about 20 limbs like that in the orchard where half the tree has fallen down. That is probably due to two things: they may be getting too much water and they have too heavy of a crop; or it was just a bad crotch in the trunk.

Other varieties that I found are quite good are: Mohawk and Cape Fear which we have used for pollination. The other thing about pecans is that most trees will need cross-pollination. So a few Cape Fear trees spotted around the orchard give me some different flowering times and improve pollination. Some people have rung me up complaining that they don't get many nuts at all. When I ask about the varieties they have, they tell me they only have one variety, maybe a hundred trees of one variety. It won't work. Every now and then they get lucky, but generally speaking, the results are very poor. Western Schley and Wichita are the main two trees. Wichita is probably a bit worse in cropping, but it is a good pollinator for the Western Schleys, and everything works quite well.

Income is very slow. If you want to plant a pecan orchard, don't expect any income at all, because it just won't be on for seven to ten years. Your costs will far outweigh money coming in. I believe that in the Texas handbook I got when I was at the university there is a program; it is twenty years before you break even without shelling equipment. If you are going to shell your own nuts, it is probably forty years. It is not a cheap thing. We have our own harvesting equipment, and have probably outlayed nearly one hundred thousand dollars for a harvester and shaker and second-hand tractor. After that, if you want to process your nuts, shell them and sell them yourself--looks good, kernels in the pack. People love them, but then you are probably looking at another hundred thousand dollars to do that, by the time you get crackers, shellers, cool rooms, packaging machines. There are other fancy things like vacuum packers--it doesn't take very long at all to run away with your money.

At the end of the day you can take your nut and you can shell it and sell it. We were going along very nicely selling nuts in shell, then one year the fickle public changed their minds and didn't want to buy nuts in shell anymore, because it was too messy. We were stuck with all those nuts in shell and we had to go buy cracking equipment. We are quite willing to take your nuts and crack them for you and give them back to you, or we will take them, crack them and sell them for you. If you have nuts you want processed, just contact us.

Q. How much more could you cope with from outside? Could you be the centre of a local industry?

A. Yes, if the business was there. We could just upgrade the plant. We are doing that anyway. We haven't been able to buy a lot of nuts. Last year we bought about 2 tonne, and that was the total production we could find; we were desperately short of nuts last year. We could have taken 10 tonne easily. They just weren't available. We are located at Mumballup, south of Collie, on the Boyup Brook-Darkan road.

After twenty years I can say we spent a lot of money on the project. We had to do this, because there is no where else in WA to process nuts. We could have sent them over east, but they wanted $1000 a tonne to shell them and $1000 a tonne to get them there, and $1000 a tonne to get them back. So there was $3000 gone out of $5000. We didn't think that would be a profitable arrangement for us.

Income is very slow. The handbook from the university says that it is the third generation pecan grower who reaps the rewards. I was 36 years old when I planted mine. Twenty years later it is starting to get a bit harder to keep going. As you get older you lose your enthusiasm, so you want to hand it on to someone who is a lot younger than yourself. If your grandfather planted them, you would be laughing now. Looking at the way the tree grows, a 70-year-old tree is a magnificent beast, producing 150-200 kg of nuts, worth more than $1000 a tree.

Pecan trees are native to America. It is imported into WA, goes through quarantine restrictions, comes out and is produced here, and it grows, and nobody knows what it is. There aren't any insect pests at all in WA at the moment. It is free of pecan scab and a few diseases. If you get a wet summer, it is prone to a few minor diseases. That is one thing it has going for it. The only pests you really have to worry about is birds, parrots, cockatoos. If you live near a town, you wouldn't be allowed to put in a gas gun. And you certainly wouldn't be allowed to fire a shotgun in a small paddock in the middle of Perth. It is my belief that the only good parrot is a dead one. If you can't do that, you are in trouble. If you go in to work as well, you are in further trouble: the parrot will start to party on the first day, the next day there is two, then there is twenty, and after a week you have no pecans left. It all happens in about two weeks. I have noticed that as soon as the stone fruit is there, the parrots attack the stone fruit. Then they attack the apples. When the apples are gone, the pecans are just setting their kernels. You just start to think you are going to have a beautiful crop, then in a week the parrots will clean you right out. Cockatoos will come in and tear your trees to bits, chop the top out of it, wreck branches as big as your thumb, and they will absolutely destroy your tree if you let them in there. Just be aware that the cockatoo is a protected bird. There can be quite a hefty fine if you are caught with one in your pocket.

When you pick the nuts, there is a machine that separates the shucks from the nuts. The shucks open up on the tree, so we have a tree shaker that goes on our tractor. We just grab the butt and shake the tree, and it picks the tree in about 10 seconds, it just shakes all the nuts on the ground. Then we have a harvester that goes along and picks the nuts up. So you end up with a mixture of nuts and husks and leaves and stuff. This goes into the cleaning machine and a fan blows all the stuff out and the nuts come out on a long table where we have four or six workers who remove all the rubbish. Because we are picking green, they have to be dried. So you have to have drying kilns that use gas. We have a ninety-foot hothouse which we store them in, and use any means we can to dry the nuts. If they are left in moisture, the moisture will actually penetrate the nut and you end up with stained kernels. When they are cracked, the stained kernels get thrown out.

The cracker is like a rifle magazine; the nuts go through one at a time and are struck by a pin that shatters the shell. So the shell is loose, but is still on there. Then there is another machine that rubs the shell off so that the kernels and the shell are loose together. Then another machine blows the shell out. The kernels go onto an inspection table where six lucky women pull out remnants of shell from the nuts. Then they go back through the blower to remove the dust. Then they are weighed into 10 kg boxes which are put into the cool room at 1 degree C. Once you get them to that stage, they will keep for a year without any problems. And then you can sell them.

Like new fruit trees, pecans have a centre leader system. The branches go off like that. The occasional pecan tree has a bad habit of doing this-- you have to chop them off, because they will break. You keep the centre leader going as high as you can. You could probably get up to 20 feet. If you are going to mechanically prune, you probably want 2 metres to the first limb at the bottom, so you can grab it with the shaker and shake the tree. Apart from that, the only thing that will worry you is your next tree. My trees are becoming a bit of a jungle, and I will have to open them up to let the sunlight in. If you are not getting a lot of deadwood at the bottom, I would say you are going OK. A rule of thumb is that at noon, 25% of the orchard floor should be shaded.

(In the following section, he was talking about various diagrams; not clearly understood on the tape. I also wonder if, on his own farm, he is using metres rather than feet--he never says the units.)

In America, because there are such big farms, they plant on 30 foot centres. After a while, they remove every second tree to make a spacing of 30 x 60 feet. Down at Mumballup, we can get a slightly denser planting of about 41 trees per acre. My original orchard was 8 x 16, but now I work on 10 x 16 foot spacing, because I realised that the trees would grow into each other too quickly. One day we are going to have to make the hard decision and saw half of them out. It will be a black day; it takes so long to get them up to that stage.

Q. Is there any market for the pecan wood, for furniture or for smoking food?

A. Not much market in WA. You can use it for smoking. It is a hickory, and you can use it for axe handles, furniture, all sorts of things. You would want to be doing this at about Year 15. The butt of the tree is only about 9 to 12 inches; it is not a good saw log. When you are talking saw logs, you are probably talking a diametre of 2 feet, a tree 100 years old. At the moment, any wood we have, we just burn. We went over to the east to Moree, the Stahmann Farms. They were thinning. They tried to get a contractor in to take the wood, but in the end they just walked off. It was too hard to cut, lots of things wrong with it, so they just burned it.

I think the trick is to get your planting out at the start so you don't have to do that for thirty or forty years. You can come down to my place to have a look--we have some new trees planted at 10 x 16, and there is that much room around the trees. I put guards on them and graze sheep in there, so we haven't lost any of the farming at all. The sheep clean up all the weeds for us, until the trees start to get into production. A tree is not going to do any good for seven years anyway. If you close-plant them, at Year 10 you are sawing them out anyway. I couldn't see any benefit in close-planting.

Marketing in Australia is not too bad. In WA it is reasonable. The price of pecan nut kernel is tied to the American dollar. They dictate the world price. You can't get any more than that. At Stahmann Farms they grow about 6 million pounds a year. They have it down to a fine art. They grow beautiful big nuts. They don't taste much. I think they are quite woody, force-grown. People who decorate cakes like them because of their size. Because they have all these nuts, they can set the price. We generally stay about $1 per kilo under their price, and we haven't been having any trouble. The price of pecans does go up and down. You will find that the lower the Australian dollar, the higher the price. When the Australian dollar gets high, the American growers will flood the market. This happened to us once: we lost all our customers in about a week, and we had all these nuts cracked. The only thing that saved us that year was that nobody would eat them. Why wouldn't they eat them? We found out that they were 2-year-old stock from America. They crossed the equator in an unrefrigerated boat, then they went into quarantine for six weeks at minus 50 degrees C. When they came out, you might as well have eaten a bit of cardboard. They went black within a week. After a few weeks, we started to get phone calls: "Have you got any nuts?" Hah! '"Of course, we have thousands of them, you rotters." We were offered $6.50 a kilo, and we wouldn't sell at that price.

Western Australia's market is about 80 tonne per year. The best we have done is 12 tonne. If we all start growing a lot of nuts and get over that, we will have to start thinking over east, or exporting it. Exporting, you have to send them to Europe, because Asia doesn't eat pecan nuts. Then you have to go through an exporter, you have to deal with exchange rates. Exporting to Europe is bad news, I think. There is no way we could ever export nuts to America. The growers over there are only getting 70 cents a pound. If you mentioned $12 per kilo over there they would pass out.

There are a lot of people in WA who don't eat pecan nuts. If we could get everyone to eat a kilo of nuts a year, that would be more than a million kilos of nuts. If you can grow a good nut, doesn't matter about size, if it is fresh, has a good colour, good taste, and get people to try them, guess what? They will eat pecan nuts. I got into trouble once because I sold a kilo bag to a woman I know in Jandakot. She was going home from work, got stuck in traffic. She nearly ate the whole bag, she never spoke to me for weeks after that. The oil in pecan nuts is low cholesterol.

A good crop of pecans is a tonne per acre, so that is 2.2 tonnes per hectare. At $5 per kilo in shell, that works out to $11,000 per hectare. You have to take into account biannual cropping, seasonal conditions, etc. It is very hard to average a tonne per acre per year. You might do better one year and not so well the next.

Pecans can be kept in a cool room for a year, both in shell and kernels. At room temperature, in the summer, they only last about a month. They gradually become darker and rancid. When they are very dark, they taste horrible. Pecans can be frozen: just put the kernels in the freezer and bring them out when you want them.