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Staying Productive through the Tough Times

Staying Productive through the Tough Times

Article and photos by Lance Cheung

Arrowhead Farms of Crystal City, Texas produces an assortment of pecans, including Cheyenne, Choctaw, and Pawnee varieties.

Akram Mohammad purchased the 719-acre Zavala County orchard with 10,000 pecan trees in 2005. When he purchased the property, flood irrigation methods were used to water the trees. Mohammad felt like there had to be a more efficient way to water his crop.

He contacted the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service office (NRCS) in Zavala County and visited with District Conservationist District Conservationist J.M. Villarreal. After a farm visit and technical assistance from Villarreal, Mohammad decided an under-ground micro-irrigation system would be a more efficient way to water his trees.

Through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Initiative Program (EQIP), Mohammad was recently awarded financial assistance to install a 146-acre underground micro-irrigation system for 4,380 trees.

According to Mr. Mohammad, only one pecan grower other than himself is operating in this area. He sees micro-irrigation as the best way to grow in a drought prone region.

In 2011 Texas experienced it’s worst single-year drought in history. At one point, the Nueces (pecan in Spanish) River that is adjacent to Arrowhead Farms, had only 2 percent of its normal annual flow. Mohammad was only allowed to pump for four days earlier in the year. The mainstay water came from deep wells that tapped into an aquifer more than 400 feet underground.

“USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) was essential to my business and trees surviving the recent exceptional drought,” Mohammad says. “The trees were stress-free thanks to underground micro-irrigation. This is essential to the future growth of Texas agriculture and good for America.”

Villarreal says, “Crystal City was a boomtown, once known for its spinach and pecan crops. It still has great soil for pecan growers along the rivers. We are glad to see Mr. Mohammad still able to produce pecans on this land, and be able to do it with less water.”

According to Villarreal, the increased irrigation efficiency should extend the orchard’s productive life.

Labor costs are dramatically less during the growing season, because where Mr. Mohammad still has conventional flood irrigation, it takes a team of people and heavy equipment to assemble 40’ by 13 “ metal pipes and build earthen containment berms to contain flood water in graded orchards. This method takes about 4 days to setup and the same to break it down, and days to water each orchard.

Micro-irrigation is started with a flip of a switch.

Villarreal says, “Flood irrigation does not provide equal watering to all the trees. It has to be monitored, looking for when to stop, for pools; and ready to take quick action to trench a drain when needed. Then there is always some run-off (more than naturally occurring) that enters the Nueces River affecting the riparian zones, wildlife and down stream bodies of water.”

When Mohammad walks through his rows of trees, he doesn’t have to make his way through weeds. Because through the year the top 10” of soil remained dry with hardly any weed growth, due to the underground irrigation network of 12,000 feet of pipe and 25,000 feet of tube that slowly drips waters down to the tree roots underneath him.

He estimates that he has cut his water demand in half, with the high efficiency watering system.

Another benefit is the greatly reduced need for anti-weed spray. Mohammad normally uses four applications each year for flood irrigated orchards. Micro-irrigated orchards only required one weed application per year and only on limited areas between the rows of trees providing lower cost and less labor.

This is particularly helpful during harvest time when equipment and workers, work around the base of the trees.

During a typical harvest season, Mohammad employs up to 25 people to harvest and operate his onsite processing facility where loads of pecans are separated from debris, washed, sorted and bagged in quantities from 5 pound bags to 1,500 pound super sacks.

This year’s harvest was still challenged with prolonged hot temperatures and dry air, yet yielded 700 lbs./acre of Grade 1 pecans. He is considering a second shake of the trees to get the nuts that would not let go weeks earlier.

“Natural Resources and Conservation Service is the most important organization in the United States,” says Mohammad. Without them I would have been finished.”

Talking with Mohammad near his D9 Caterpillar bulldozer, he says, “I like the analogy that says of you give a man a fish he will eat for a day, teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. USDA teaches me to be a better fisherman (farmer).”

EQIP is a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers through contracts up to a maximum term of ten years in length. These contracts provide financial assistance to help plan and implement conservation practices that address natural resource concerns and for opportunities to improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related resources on agricultural land and non-industrial private forestland. In addition, a purpose of EQIP is to help producers meet Federal, State, Tribal and local environmental regulations.

Farmer Akram Mohammad can walk through this pecan orchard at his Arrowhead Farms in Crystal City, TX, knowing he survived the exceptional 2011 drought thanks to an underground micro irrigated system that was installed with financial assistance from the NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Arrowhead Farms owner Mr. Akram Mohammad (left) talks with Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist J.M. Villarreal (right) about the pressure control valves used at the pecan orchards at Arrowhead Farms.

Farmer Akram Mohammad can walk through this pecan orchard at his Arrowhead Farms in Crystal City, TX, knowing he survived the exceptional 2011 drought thanks to an underground micro irrigated system that was installed with financial assistance from the NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Arrowhead Farms owner Mr. Akram Mohammad (left) talks with Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist J.M. Villarreal (right) about the pressure control valves used at the pecan orchards at Arrowhead Farms.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist J.M. Villarreal (left) and Arrowhead Farms owner Akram Mohammad show off the Grade 1 pecans that were grown this year using micro irrigation drip watering system on his farm in Crystal City, Texas. Five and 50 pound bags of pecans produced at Arrowhead Farms of Crystal City, TX

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist J.M. Villarreal (left) and Arrowhead Farms owner Akram Mohammad show off the Grade 1 pecans that were grown this year using micro irrigation drip watering system on his farm in Crystal City, Texas.

Five and 50 pound bags of pecans produced at Arrowhead Farms of Crystal City, TX

Water distribution pipes for micro irrigation have been trenched and lie well protected from the environment and heavy equipment at Arrowhead Farms of Crystal City, TX, on Monday, March 1, 2010. Only flow control and pressure regulating valves are above ground in the orchard area. Tubes with water emitters will radiate out from the pipes and run, 10 inches underground, along rows of 4,380 pecan trees on 146 acres. Jesus Gomez uses keen eyes and fast hands to sort out any pecans that are less than perfect from the last load of the 2011 season's harvest at Arrowhead Farms.

Water distribution pipes for micro irrigation have been trenched and lie well protected from the environment and heavy equipment at Arrowhead Farms of Crystal City, TX, on Monday, March 1, 2010. Only flow control and pressure regulating valves are above ground in the orchard area. Tubes with water emitters will radiate out from the pipes and run, 10 inches underground, along rows of 4,380 pecan trees on 146 acres.

Jesus Gomez uses keen eyes and fast hands to sort out any pecans that are less than perfect from the last load of the 2011 season's harvest at Arrowhead Farms.