Volume 36, Number 10, December 2003
West Texas growers debut Sun Valley Pecan
By Cindy Loggins Wise
A mid November drive on Interstate 10 heading east out of El Paso provides an agricultural vista off to your right that appears deceptively calm. The Rio Grande winds its way south just out of view and few wisps of dust indicate that some occasional field activity is underway. There are regular and fairly large patches of green signaling the familiar pecan orchards that stretch through the valley past Clint, then Fabens, then Tornillo.
But the calm and peaceful scene is merely an interlude as cotton harvest winds up and pecan growers wait expectantly for the first hard freeze to turn the lush green trees to brown and then to "bare". Then, field equipment including shakers, sweepers and harvesters will fill the horizon with dusty clouds as growers bring down and pick up this year's hefty pecan crop. These western region growers will be some of the last in the country to get started with harvest. But last doesn't mean least here- this valley can yield in excess of 10 million pounds of pecans.
There is at lest one new element to the West Texas scene this year - three grower families have joined forces to start up their own shelling operation known as Sun Valley Pecan Company. The shelling plant, with the capacity to process 12 million pounds of pecans annually and with room to expand, commenced operations in April of this year.
The Davis, Maros, and Surratt families have all been in the pecan business in the El Paso valley for several generations, which was more than long enough to grow dissatisfied with having to accept lower prices for their pecans because of harvesting later in the season that southeastern growers.
"We never got the gift-pack prices in the West that they got in the Southeast," Michael Surratt pointed out. And, additionally, he noted, "our quality out here is more consistent than in other parts of the country."
Surratt, the shelling operation's general manager, said Sun Valley is aiming for a market of users who want "nice, fancy halves in the junior mammoth to mammoth size range." He expects the shelling plant to process 10 million inshell pounds this season. With the three partners capable of producing four million pounds, custom shelling will comprise the rest of the volume. Most of those custom-shelled pecans will be marketed by Sun Valley as well under a "pool" marketing arrangement.
Sales have gotten off to a good start under the leadership of sales director Jess Harrell. Surratt emphasized that quality will be the major focus of the product which Sun Valley offers. Since start-up last spring, Surrat said the plant has been yielding 73 percent fancy halves cent. He attributes that to a combination of good equipment, a good quality control system and the quality of the pecans themselves which are mostly 'Westerns'. The Sun Valley plant manager Eddie Garza has 16 years of pecan shelling experience and quality control manager Sylvia Torres has 13 years of pecan experience under her belt. Even with the expertise of experienced plant leadership, starting up a shelling operation "has turned out to be a lot harder than we expected," Surratt noted. "But we have had a lot of positive feedback from customers."
Sun Valley's focus on quality includes seeking the American Institute of Baking's Gold Standard Certification, a feat no one in the pecan industry has accomplished to date. Sanitation, food safety and ingredient quality must meet extremely high standards for a business to earn this certification. Surratt pointed out that Sun Valley processes pecans from weevil-free areas only. One can read more about this effort at the website, www.surrattfarms.com - click on the page for Sun Valley.
Harvest in the El Paso valley typically gets underway around Thanksgiving, after a hard freeze brings down the leaves. Overall, the 2003 crop in this valley appears to be a big one.
Brothers Alan and Michael Surratt farm about 475 acres of pecans, in addition to cotton, at Fabens about 25 miles east of El Paso. The Sun Valley shelling plant is located on the Surratt farm. The brothers are third generation pecan growers. Michael indicated that his grandfather first planted pecans on their farm as a windbreaker. Their father, Gail Surratt, began planting their orchards in 1967. They grow primarily 'Westerns' with a few 'Wichitas' as pollinators. Their orchards may be expanded in the future - Michael said they have several hundred more acres which may be planted.
Water availability, due to drought conditions, is becoming an increasing concern and irrigation allotments in the El Paso valley were cut from four acre feet to two acre feet this past growing season. It could be worse in the coming year, Surratt indicated. Fortunately, Surratt Farms has good water wells already in place to supplement their irrigation allotment from the Elephant Butte reservoir. Many other growers are now busy drilling wells. A publication from the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at El Paso states that, as of Oct. 20. 2003, the "surface water supply (runoff) to Elephant Butte Reservoir for the 2003 water year was only 11 percent of the 30- year average - the fifth lowest inflow on record." Water in storage in the reservoir is only 7.5 capacity, and only 10 percent of that is available to area users.
The other partners in the Sun Valley shelling operation are also multi-generational pecan operations. The Maros family operation at Fabens, which encompasses about 1,200 acres of pecans, was headed by Michael Maros until his death in October of this year. His widow, Valerie Maros will now oversee the pecan farm and will continue the partnership in Sun Valley. In addition to the usual 'Westerns' and 'Wichita' varieties, the Maros farm includes 60 acres of 'Wonder Nut', Surratt noted, a cultivar from New Mexico similar to 'Desirable'.
Brothers Howard and Rives Davis , the third partner in the Sun Valley endeavor, are also third generation growers who farm about 350 acres of pecans at Fabens. All partners are committed to growing top quality pecans, Surratt said, which was an essential element to the collaboration
In mid November, under sunny skies and warm temperatures, the pecan foliage in the valley was beginning to take on slight gold and brown hues but remained mostly green and healthy looking. Shuck split was obvious on some trees and barely discernible on others. However, by the time Pecan South readers have this article in hand, the green will be gone, dust will be filling the sky, and much of the crop in this region will be headed toward Sun Valley.
Michael Surratt, pictured above, is general manager of Sun Valley Pecan. The new shelling plant, pictured at top, is located on the Surratt farm just outside of Fabens, TX.