Until a decade ago, most southern New Mexico pecan growers burned their tree prunings. For weeks every winter, smoke would fill the air in the Mesilla Valley, the heart of New Mexico’s pecan-growing region. But as it became increasingly difficult to obtain permits for agricultural burning, lifelong friends Ryan Jaramillo and Brandon Stuart recognized a solution to the waste problem — and a business opportunity for themselves.
With one shredding machine, the two young agriculturalists started Valley Shredding in 2007 — and haven’t looked back.
Today, Jaramillo and Stuart own five Flory Industries pecan shredders, each costing about $400,000, and handle tree trimmings for growers in three states, on operations ranging from 1 to 1,000 acres.
“We are now the largest Flory shredder owners in the U.S.,” Jaramillo says.
Improving Air and Soil Quality
If you’re picturing a backyard wood chipper, think bigger. These self-propelled shredders are designed for pecans, because pecan wood is harder and the trees larger than other orchard trees. The machines run on Caterpillar-like track drives. Their 9-foot front-feed chews up limbs as thick as 4 inches, and spits out small shreds as it moves along — shreds that the farmer later incorporates into the soil.
In the past, growers pushed tree trimmings to the end of the field and burned them after harvest.
“We have a passion for the industry, we like the farmers we work with, and we take pride in helping them succeed.”
“The Mesilla Valley was smoky, gloomy and nasty for months, and people got allergies from the smoke,” Jaramillo says. “Now that we shred the trimmings, we like to say we’re saving the valley one twig at a time.”
Today, burning agricultural waste is more restricted than ever. The New Mexico Department of Environmental Quality allows burning only on wind-free days, and limits the number of permits issued at a time.
Besides improving air quality, shredding offers other benefits, as well:
- Shreds build up organic matter in the soil around the pecan trees, which encourages root growth and helps retain water. Most valley farmers flood-irrigate, pumping water from the Rio Grande river and underground wells.
- Shreds release nitrogen into the soil, improving fertility.
- In heavy clay soil, pecans can fall into cracks in the earth, reducing nut harvest. Incorporating shreds into the soil helps prevent cracking.
- Traditionally, pecan trees produce nuts every two years, but “hedging” or trimming the trees allows more sunlight to reach the branches. Hedging, combined with plowing shreds into the soil, promotes more consistent pecan production and quality from year to year.
Valley Shredding continues to grow each year, along with increased pecan acreage in the Mesilla Valley. New Mexico is one of the nation’s top pecan-producing states, and the valley’s Doña Ana County is the state’s largest pecan-producing county. Stuart estimates that the Mesilla Valley has about 40,000 acres of pecan trees, and Valley Shredding serves more than half of that acreage.
“Over the years, people have really seen the benefits of what we do,” Stuart says. “We have a lot of repeat business. Our only complaints come when we can’t get into a grower’s orchards fast enough.”
Shredding is a seasonal activity lasting from January to April. Growers begin hedging in December and January following harvest, and finish the work before the sap runs and the leaves appear in early April. After windrowing the branches, they hire Valley Shredding to chew up the limbs.
“Ag New Mexico understands agriculture and farm equipment. They welcomed us and take great care of us. They work with our seasonal cash-flow cycle and adjust payment schedules that work for us.”
Besides running the shredding company, which is based in Las Cruces, Jaramillo and Stuart — who attended New Mexico State University together — also hold full-time jobs in the pecan industry. Jaramillo is sales manager at Bissett Specialty Equipment, which offers pecan-related brands including Flory and New Holland. Stuart is director of procurement for John B. Sanfilippo and Sons Inc., the parent company of Fisher Nuts, a leading nut brand in the nation.
These days, the partners rarely drive the shredders themselves, because their focus is on management and customer relations. Instead, one employee is assigned to each machine, with responsibility for operating and maintaining the shredder, which can cover 3 to 5 acres an hour.
“We don’t take any vacations or weekends off during the shredding season,” Stuart explains.
Financing Makes the Difference
Financing from Ag New Mexico, part of the Farm Credit System, has been critical to Valley Shredding’s success.
“When we started out, we had trouble getting financing from a local bank,” Jaramillo says. “We heard that Ag New Mexico understands agriculture and farm equipment. They welcomed us and take great care of us. They work with our seasonal cash-flow cycle, and adjust payment schedules that work for us.”
“We never would have grown this big without the help of Ag New Mexico,” Stuart adds.
Elizabeth French, relationship manager for Ag New Mexico in Las Cruces, has worked with Valley Shredding for five years.
“They’re very knowledgeable about the pecan industry and responsive,” says French. “I have enjoyed watching them grow and flourish, and Ag New Mexico appreciates the opportunity to serve them as customers.”
“We are now the largest Flory shredder owners in the U.S.”
Jaramillo and his wife, Kaylene, learned more about Farm Credit last year when they represented Ag New Mexico at the Farm Credit Young Leaders Program. As part of the program, they visited New York and New Jersey, where they toured a Wall Street brokerage firm and the Federal Farm Credit Banks Funding Corporation. They also traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with congressional leaders.
“I shared my views on how Farm Credit is different than other banks,” Jaramillo said. “Farm Credit is especially important to young agribusiness owners like us.”
Dreaming of the Future
By the end of the shredding season, Jaramillo and Stuart are ready to take a break and spend more time with their families. They don’t want to enlarge their business further because it’s difficult to find good workers. In fact, they retain some employees year-round to ensure they will have help available during shredding season and to maintain the equipment during off-months.
Asked why they work so hard, Stuart is quick to answer.
“We have a passion for the industry, we like the farmers we work with, and we take pride in helping them succeed,” he says.
Stuart’s father-in-law, Dickie Salopek, one of the valley’s largest pecan growers, encouraged them to start the business. Now they dream of someday passing the business along to their children. Stuart and his wife, Sharla, who helps with the company’s bookkeeping, have two youngsters — a daughter, Ava, 10, and a son, Braydon, 7. The Jaramillos have a daughter, Bryley, 5, and a son, Rhys, 3.
Who knows? In a few years, one of the children may take over the seat of a Flory shredder.
Pecans by the Numbers
- New Mexico ranks as the second-largest pecan-producing state, with 72 million pounds of production in 2016. Georgia ranks first and Texas third.
- U.S. pecan growers produced 269 million pounds in 2016 — approximately 80 percent of the world supply.
- A high-value crop, New Mexico pecans sold for an average of $2.96 per pound in 2016 — higher than the average U.S. price.
- New Mexico growers produced an average of 1,800 pounds per acre in 2016.
- A pecan tree takes seven to 10 years to produce a full supply of nuts, but once the process starts, the tree can produce for up to 100 years.