John and Jimma Byrd own and manage a 110-acre organic pecan orchard in San Saba called King’s Crossing Farm. They’ve been certified organic for 12 years, and are maintaining their certification as their 800 pecan trees mature. In the meantime, they are selling some organic veggies.
Why did you become a certified organic producer?
John: “Jimma and I applied for our certification – it is part of our lifestyle. For many years we also received matching federal funds to help us partially pay for our certification. Soon after we got our certification we also joined TOFGA (Texas Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association). Our first involvement with TOFGA was at the Renewable Energy Roundup. A few years later, Jimma became a regional director for TOFGA. Jimma’s work as regional director allowed us to do a lot of networking – it was lots of fun and lots of work.”
Jimma: “We wanted to see if certification really meant anything – to see if the rules were being followed. We found out that it does have meaning. It particularly has meaning if you are buying or selling wholesale and can’t meet your farmer/consumer.”
How do you handle the paperwork requirements of organic certification?
John: “We just fill it out – but it’s tedious. The first application is the most difficult. The application takes several hours and inspections take about two hours.”
Jimma: “John helps by making the maps and informing me about when and what his farming practices are. Applications of compost, zinc, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), etc. I fill out the paperwork. It’s somewhat analogous to a cross between a root canal and doing your own income taxes. It is tedious.” [We both laugh and sigh heavily.]
Have you received a return on your certification investment?
Jimma: “Organic agriculture aligns with our personal philosophy. I feel the National Organic Program is worth supporting. However, we haven’t received an adequate return on our investment in our certification fees because of current obstacles in marketing organic pecans. It would help if there were a cost share program like in previous years.”
What is the most difficult part of the inspection?
John: “Seems to hit us at a wrong time always – during pecan season. They don’t understand why we can’t drop everything when the inspectors come out.”
Where do you get most of your organic certification technical information from?
John: “Sometimes the feedback from our application and inspection process.”
Jimma: “We go to the National Organics Program website to get technical information. This is the source we’d use if we needed information on whether a product was allowed or restricted by NOP. When we first got started and had questions, I would call Texas Department of Agriculture Organics Program staff.”
What experience can you share about what the organic pecan industry in Texas is like?
John: “I bought three organic loads of pecans in 2007 and tried to set up the organic native pecan business in Texas. You need a certified pecan sheller and it just didn’t work out on the wholesale level. I plan on marketing and retailing our pecans myself.”
Do you try to keep your orchard floors clean or do you use cover crops?
Jimma: “In our native perennial orchard with the large trees, we have native bunch grasses and mow once a year. In one portion of our improved variety orchard, with the 800 young trees, we have used cover crops there…mostly vetch and wheat combo.”
Do the overseas markets for Texas pecans offer any premiums for certified organic pecans?
Jimma: “Thus far in our experience, those markets pay a premium for big high quality pecans regardless – of whether they are conventional or certified organic.”
Did you ever use ATTRA for any advice?
John: “Yes, I used that work on pecans done by Steve Diver. It was very informative.”
If you knew then what you know now about being an organic producer, what would you have done differently at the beginning of your organic business?
John: “We would have done the same thing. We showed pecan growers that you can grow the crop with organic methods.”
Jimma: “Not much. Going forward we will likely change certifiers. We got good contacts from the TOFGA conference this year.”
What are the biggest changes you have seen in the market for organic produce in Texas over the last 2-3 years?
Jimma: “There seems to be an increased awareness by consumers of the value of organic products and more willingness to purchase.”
Who is that one customer that you have not been able to get just yet?
Jimma: “We would like to have a wholesale market for in-shell organic native pecans. The certified pecan shellers in our area seem to have all the product they want.”
What are you doing to try to get that customer?
Jimma: “Whenever we have product (pecans don’t produce every year) we will contact the two certified shellers in Texas and Arkansas to let them know we have pecans for sale.”
What do you think the Texas Department of Agriculture should do to better help organic farmers in Texas?
Jimma: “Be positive and encouraging of growing the base of organic farmers through media and marketing. Reduce the paperwork and the fees for certification. Inform all farmers of cost-share programs for certification.”
You can contact John or Jimma Byrd by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone, (372) 372-7615.