Missouri Northern Pecan Growers LLC, (MNPG) purchases, processes, and markets northern grown pecans. MNPG was formed in 2000 by a group of pecan growers in an effort to add value and develop markets for their product. In developing value-added markets, organic was identified as offering a substantial premium and superior growth prospects. A feasibility study was conducted which confirmed the market potential for organic pecans. The study also found that although most Missouri pecan growers used sustainable agricultural practices, they had little knowledge of organic farming and had never considered organic certification of their pecan crop. Most groves were free of any chemical use, therefore making it possible for many grove owners to convert the majority of their groves over to organic production if a market could be found.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Missouri Northern Pecan Growers LLC, a group of five producers, is currently processing and marketing “pesticide free” and Certified 100 % pecans. The product is distributed to over 200 retail stores around the region.
The objective of this project was to significantly expand the grower base for native, organic pecans. By meeting this objective, the project will:
1. Sustain economic viability of farm operations
2. Enhance environmental quality
3. Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole
4. Satisfy human food needs
Pecan trees are native to the streams and tributaries of Vernon County, Missouri. Many of these trees have been removed over the years to make way for row crop production. The remaining native pecan trees and groves are utilized for both pecan production and grazing of beef cattle. Missouri is the northern most state to support commercial pecan production. Pest and disease problems are not prevalent in native Missouri pecans due to a cooler climate and shorter growing season. Since grazing is the primary land use, most producers did not spray pesticides or use fertilizers in their groves. By applying current management practices to native pecan groves with the National Organic Program rules and regulations, many pecan groves could be certified organic without going through the normal three-year transition period.
To significantly expand the grower base for native, organic pecans. By expanding the grower base the following benefits would also be realized: 1) Sustain economic viability of farm operations, 2) enhance environmental quality, 3) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole and 4) satisfy human food needs.
After careful evaluation, MNPG made the decision to enter the organic pecan market. With verbal commitments from several retailer distributors for the purchase of organic pecans, it was determined 50,000 pounds of processed organic pecans would be needed by November, 2003. To meet this demand we had to convince conventional pecan growers using sustainable methods to apply for organic certification and to convert conventional pecan growers to use organic production methods. Due to drought conditions and lack of our own shelling facility, we only had 30,000 pounds by February 1, 2004.
MNPG and the Vernon County Extension office jointly put together a mailing to all area pecan growers explaining what organic is and how they could profit by becoming certified organic growers. The mailing was followed by phone calls and farm visits to interested growers. MNPG provided education to interested farmers, explaining buffer strips, approved methods for pest control, etc. MNPG also assisted every grower with their organic application and paperwork. Sue Baird from Missouri Department of Agriculture’s Organic Program inspected each farm in the Fall of 2003. This was a fast project as growers had to have their certification for the 2003 pecan harvest which began in November. That first year we had 16 farmers certified for organic production with many others very interested. Those farmers received a 33 percent premium for their organic pecans over conventional prices. This created an immediate economic impact for our organic pecan farmers.
In February 2004, an appreciation dinner was held at Smokey’s Barbeque for all the organic growers and their families. Members of MNPG reported on the year’s results and educated growers on ways to improve their pecan production. MNPG also started sending newsletters to growers advising them of management practices, certification issues and market news.
By harvest season 2004, we had added five more organic farmers and purchased 180,000 pounds of organic pecans. Missouri Nut Growers Association was supportive and included MNPG in their field days. MNPG hosted an organic field day for interested farmers. Mike Gold and Dusty Walter from the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry gave talks on the economics of tree crops and environmental benefits trees provide to wetlands and as riparian buffers.
2005 brought MNPG our biggest challenges and was also remarkably successful. In April, the Missouri Organic Program was eliminated due to budget cuts. MNPG was very involved in an effort to reinstate the program, but when that proved unsuccessful, we were forced to find a new certifying agency. This was especially troubling as most organic certifiers have little or no experience with tree crops and we had developed a very close working relationship with Sue Baird and Missouri Department of Agriculture.
After several months of talking with certifying agents, organic growers, Organic Trade Association and numerous other sources we choose OneCert to provide our certifications and organized as a growers group for certification purposes. New growers were added for a total of 27 organic pecan farmers. The harvest of 2005 provided the largest crop in several years. The organic crop was over 700,000 pounds and growers received $1.40+ per pound. Organic pecans put over $1,000,000 into local farmers hands plus those pecans are being processed and marketed from the local area, providing additional jobs and revenue for the local economy.
SARE grant provided MNPG the financial resources to get our message out to growers, to provide expert assistance in transitioning to organic production and paid for printing and postage to keep our growers informed and connected. Funds were also used to construct holding bins and purchase super sacks to aid in the traceability required in organic processing.
Since going organic our gross sales have increased more than 300 percent, we have shipped pecans to every state in the U.S., have a distributor in England and are in negotiation with a wholesaler in Japan. Without the assistance from SARE there is no way we could have recruited growers and gotten them certified in time to meet the 2003 harvest and supply organic pecans to the buyers we had made commitments to. Because we were able to supply those first buyers with a superior product, our name has spread and we’re now selling to literally hundreds of organic retailers, restaurants, confectioners and distributors.