Harvest is under way, finally, at the world's largest all-in-one pecan growing and processing operation — The Green Valley Pecan Co.

This year's harvest didn't get going in earnest until after Christmas, due to an unusually late onset of sufficiently cold temperatures, said Roger Hooper, farm manager for Farmers Investment Co., or FICO, the pecan firm's parent company.

The nuts can't be harvested until the first freeze, Hooper said. And because that didn't happen in Sahuarita until Dec. 22, the harvest is beginning almost a month later than usual, he said.

So Hooper and his crew, and about 30 contract workers brought in from Gilbert, are hustling to make up for lost time.

"We're on a very strict schedule," said Hooper, a third-generation farmer from Casa Grande.

Javier "Rocky" Lopez, harvest foreman, said he's working 12-hour shifts to get the job done.

"I'm usually the first guy in and the last guy out," said Lopez, who has worked for FICO for 43 years.

"We need to get this crop in, because it's our bread and butter," he said. "It's a big job out there."

Like a lot of the company's approximately 250 workers, Lopez is a second-generation FICO employee. His son, Javier Jr., now works for the company — the third generation of his family to do so.

After the harvest

Once the harvest is completed on the 4,500 acres, the pecans are processed, packaged and shipped out from FICO's plant on Sahuarita's east side.

The plant usually operates seven days a week, with three shifts working around the clock to meet the world's hunger for the two types of the tasty nuts that FICO produces, said Brenda Lara, plant manager.

"We ship all over the world," Lara said. "We're the No. 1 provider of pecans to Europe."

Shipments peak just before Christmas, she said in a Dec. 28 interview. The plant is then shut down for a couple of weeks through the holidays for maintenance.

But the orchards are buzzing with activity through February.

The harvest must be done within a fairly tight time frame, after temperatures have cooled sufficiently and in between heavy winter rains, like last weekend's, which can quickly transform the orchards into a muddy mess.

After the harvest, pruning crews work their way through the orchards, operating machines with multiple circular saw blades that cut the tops and upper branches of about 25 percent of the trees every year.

That makes the trees more productive and increases the amount and quality of "meat" in each nut, Hooper said.

The wood generated from pruning is collected and sold, both to individuals and to firewood companies that in turn sell to customers throughout the Tucson area.

All of that work must be completed in time to get the trees ready for another season. In early March, FICO resumes irrigating the orchards, just before "bud break," when new leaves begin to bud from trees that are just beginning to reawaken from winter dormancy.

"We've got a lot of balls in the air this time of year," Hooper said.

New equipment

Hooper hopes to make up for lost time this year with new equipment that FICO has invested in over the past couple of years. That includes a fleet of small trucks that look like big all-terrain vehicles and are just the right size to make their way between the rows of trees to gather and haul loads of nuts to the plant.

The company also is installing more-efficient processing equipment in the plant, which uses computers and lasers to do more work with fewer people, Hooper said.

Harvesting is done in three steps, in a carefully orchestrated process that has been made more efficient by the new equipment and techniques, he said.

First come the "shakers" — tractorlike vehicles with large mechanical pincers extending from the front that grab and shake the trees, causing ripe nuts to rain down all around.

Next, "sweepers" — a sort of agricultural version of an urban street sweeper — whisk the pecans into long, linear piles between the rows of trees.

Then the piles are scooped into the backs of the small trucks and taken to the FICO pecan-processing plant.

"You're not going to get every nut from every tree," Hooper said.

But they'll get about 97 percent of them after the "gleaning crews" come in behind the mechanized workers and pick up nuts still left on the ground.

"The squirrels get the rest," said Larry Kempton, FICO's community relations manager.

Did you know?

FICO founder R. Keith Walden came to this area from California in 1948 after buying land known then as the Continental Farm. The farm, near the community of Continental, was founded in 1915 by three Gilded Age financiers — Bernard Baruch, Joseph Kennedy and J.P. Morgan — who owned the Intercontinental Rubber Co.

The three planned to grow guayule, a plant that produces latex that could be used to make rubber if, as many Americans feared, the German navy were to cut off shipping lanes during World War I — and imports of rubber from the Far East. After the war, the guayule (pronounced "why-YOU-lee") project was abandoned. In 1922, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands bought the farm and rented it to cotton farmers. The farmhands who worked the fields included World War II German prisoners of war kept at a POW camp near what is now the Quail Creek subdivision, in south Sahuarita.

FICO is now owned and operated by Walden's son, Richard, the company's president and CEO. His wife, Nan Stockholm Walden, is vice president and general counsel. Richard's daughter, Deborah Walden-Ralls, is the company's marketing project manager.

Sources: Farmers Investment Co.; "Images of America — Green Valley, Arizona" by Philip Goorian

FICO facts

• Farmers Investment Co.'s pecan-growing operation in the Sahuarita-Green Valley area is the world's largest "vertically integrated" producer of pecans. (A vertically integrated operation produces, grows, processes and ships its product.)

• The company owns 6,000 acres with 101,000 Wichita and Western Schley pecan trees. About 4,500 acres are now in cultivation, including more than 450 acres of "certified organic" pecan trees.

• FICO's trees produce about 2,000 pounds of pecans per acre.

Source: Farmers Investment Co.

● Contact reporter Tim Ellis at 807-8414 or tellis@azstarnet.com.