Paul Lee had been a farmer all his life from working with all kinds of farm machinery to growing his own cotton, wheat, and pinto beans before he and wife Jackie decided to slow life’s tempo down a bit.
Their foray into the tree nut part of agriculture initially slapped them in the face however when a killing frost wiped out their initial 80-acre, 1,800 tree, nut farm.
“This acreage was a couple miles away as the crow flies from where we are now," Paul said. "Neighbors warned us that if there was a low spot in the field where flood waters run, you don’t want to plant there because it’s colder. We were told. We didn’t listen,” said the now-much-wiser tree nut grower.
Now, at age 82, Paul and Jackie, age 78, have a firm grasp on a manageable trim-and-tidy 10 acres in Wilcox, Ariz., some 220 trees they planted in the early 1980s and tend to with Paul being his own hired hand responsible for all the mowing, pruning, topping, and harvesting.
“We planted the regional favorite, Western Schley,” said Paul, “and then just for the heck of it, we kept planting other trees all with interesting-sounding Native American names, a dozen varieties ranging from Schley to Burkette, Cherokee, Cheyanne, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Mohawk, Navajo, Pawnee, and Wichita.
“We’ve got 12 different varieties and I don’t know why we did that,” he said. “It was just whim and caprice — a passing fancy — one of those crazy ‘why not’ ideas.”
Whatever the variety, the trees all tend to leaf out into annual production about the same time. As of early May, Jackie reported: “The trees are showing beautifully now with nutlets starting to appear.” Harvest, generally a 3-4 day operation, runs in the late December/early January timeframe.
Fortunately for the two-person crew, aphids are their worst enemy, requiring an occasional spray. “We’re the closest thing to organic without actually being there,” she said.
Regardless of the nut’s name, they all get rounded up and taken to a Las Cruces cleaning plant and from there are driven 825 miles one-way to a small but state-of-the-art Texas shelling plant.
A ‘labor of love’
The resultant 20,000 pounds of shelled product gets packed together in quart-sized Ziplock bags labeled ‘Farm Fresh Lee’s Pecans’ sold at $13 for halves, $11 for pieces, and at discounted pricing for larger orders.
They don’t do it for the money, they say. “Gosh, yes,” adds Paul, “This is a labor of love that keeps me young and thinking ahead. We’ve got a pretty penny invested in this place, so we probably won’t see a real financial gain. We do it for pride.”
“This place was not designed to be the start of an empire. The beauty of this place is its own return,” adds Jackie.
Their dedication to keeping their pecans pristine has prompted nearby residents to try their hand at nut-growing with one neighbor putting in 600 trees on his property. “It’s getting to be like Pecan Corners” Jackie said.