Strategically Thinning a Pecan Orchard and Use of the By-product for Sustainable Management

Final Report for FNC00-304

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2000: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2002
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $4,453.00
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Cape Farm is located six miles south of Butler in Bates County, Missouri. It covers approximately 300 acres. The property was purchased in 1979 by Gordon Kempf and Ed FitzGerald. Pecan seedlings were provided by the State of Missouri, Department of Conservation at its nursery in Licking, Missouri. Approximately 4000 seedlings were planed 20 by 20 feet per the program’s planting requirements. The planted seedlings are being grafted with known cultivars to produce an improved pecan nut.

Before receiving this grant, some sustainable practices were used. For example, synthetic herbicides and fertilizers were infrequently applied. Woodland areas have also been maintained in their native condition.

The goals of the project were as follows:
1) Strategically thin the fields by building a Geographic Information System (GIS) database of the trees.
2) Produce BBQ smoking chunks from the removed trees, extensively advertise the chunks and sell them in order to economically sustain the farm while the trees mature to commercial production status. (This second goal was amended in June of 2002 to focus on the mapping aspect of the project. This modification was made because we had concerns over whether the marketing of pecan smoking chunks would be successful, whether our supply of chunks justified the investment and the benefits we had already realized from the GIS were exciting and worth pursuing. Since only 80% of the orchard was able to be surveyed with the original amount budgeted towards GPS equipment, we decided to modify the original grant objective to finish mapping the orchard and expand the use of the data with a field GIS, instead of marketing the BBQ chunks.)

The first step in strategically thinning the fields by building a Geographic Information System (GIS) database of the trees was to survey the orchards using a GPS unit. The GPs unit must be fairly accurate (i.e. sub-meter). We initially leased the Trimble Pathfinder Pro GPS and then switched to the Leica GIS Pro. We made this switch for economic reasons. The Trimble dealer was out of state while the Leica dealer was local. Both units include a data logger that is used to capture descriptive information about each tree at the time of the survey.

Tagging the trees with a unique identifying marker was a process that was modified along the way. We started with aluminum race track style tags that were numbered 1-100. This pre-stamped numbering was not beneficial as most of our tree rows only have about 30 trees in them. Therefore number 31-100 had to be marked over with the correct tree number. We then bought the same tags unnumbered. We have also used 10 and 15 inch metal garden markers that are placed in the ground. The benefit of these is that they do not harm the tree since they are not attached to the tree. The disadvantage is that the markers are hard to see as you walk by the tree as grass and weeds are generally higher than the marker. We also were happy with the results of the Uni-Paint opaque, oil based paint marker. This marker appears to last well on the tags/markers and endures far better than a Sharpie marker.

Maps of the fields were then produced. Map production was facilitated by my knowledge of GIS software from previous work experience. This allowed me to work with the data directly without having to learn many new software programs. Thinning decisions based on the maps could then be made based on the data was collected.

Updating new information on the maps in the field proved to be awkward. For example, if you made a map showing which trees needed to be re-grafted, it would be difficult to also use that map to record the information about the re-grafts themselves (i.e. cultivar, person, graft-type, etc.) This would have to be done on a separate notebook. We decided that acquiring a field hardy GIS would be beneficial and allow us to record a lot more information. Becoming familiar with the operation of the hand held GIS has however been time consuming and slow.

The decision of which trees to thin was made based on the information collected in the field and shown on the maps. Generally, a simple thinning plan of removing every other tree was decided upon. However in older parts of the orchard, the thinning choices were based on production data and cultivar diversity in that section of the orchard.

Both GPS dealers (Trimble and Leica) were very helpful in teaching me how to use the unit and process the data. Several times, I had questions about specific applications of the unit and the dealers always found an answer for me.

Speaking with other tree growers at my outreach event and at other tree growers meetings has helped in getting more ideas about how to tag or mark the trees.

Dr. William (Bill) Reid is the Pecan Research and Extension Specialist from Kansas State University. He runs the Pecan Experiment Station in Chetopa, KS. He is very involved in the Missouri Nut Growers Association and has been helpful throughout this grant project. I have discussed my project with him and shown him the mapping results. He has provided many useful comments and suggestions particular to our operation.

The results of the survey have been the maps and the GIS database. The benefits of the maps were soon realized. From knowing exactly which trees needed to be re-grafted to determining accurate acreage calculations for various parts of the orchard, GIS is a powerful tool in orchard management. Showing hired help which trees needed to be removed for the thinning process was also made much clearer through the use of the maps.

Our previous system of deciding which trees to remove simply involved walking through the orchard, noticing which trees were too close together and then marking them with a particular color spray paint. If we did not get around to removing the tree that year, the paint marking generally faded away and would have to be re-marked. Often we had many different colors of spray paint to use and did not have a good system of keeping track of what each color signified. The map legends have solved this problem. Additionally permanently making each tree with an ID number has allowed us to keep data on individual trees.

Before this grant, we had once attempted to map the trees without the use of a GPS unit. This proved to be very inefficient, inaccurate, and time consuming.

Our orchard new relies on these maps for operational management. As we plan out new fields we know the GIS can help us figure out how many trees can fit in a particular area. We can also keep better track of other data we collect like soil samples.

I learned a lot of detail about our orchard. This is because I walked the entire place, tree by tree in order to do the GPS survey. The project has made us appreciate and value record keeping on the status and health of the trees. I also learned that this project is only as good as the data we collect and maintain, which means a significant on going time commitment. It has somewhat difficult to stick with this commitment.

We did overcome our identified barrier of needing to thin our fields in a strategic manner. By marking the trees with an ID number, and producing maps of what trees need to be removed, we can keep track of out thinning process even if the thinning work is spread over several years.

The advantages of implementing a project like ours is that it allows you to collect the data that can give you a long term view of your operation. The disadvantage is that gathering this data is time intensive and you must make a commitment to upkeep the data once the original set is collected. If asked by another producer for more information or a recommendation concerning this project, I would show them the maps I produced to see if they see value in such a survey in their own operation.

I was a featured speaker at the Missouri Nut Growers Association’s (MNGA) Annual Meeting and Nut Show held on February 9, 2002 at the Nevada Community Center in Nevada, MO. Larry Harper, a MNGA Director, had asked me to speak at this meeting about the mapping methods I developed in my grant project. At this meeting, I explained my grant project, demonstrated the use of a GPS unit and gave out handouts showing maps I produced with the data I gathered. I discussed the tagging issue and several growers commented about their own tagging solutions. Many growers also thought the surveying was a useful and valuable endeavor and talked to me at length regarding the GPS specifications and the survey process. Approximately 50 nut growers attended this meeting.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.