The business that would become the Farmers Investment Co. (FICO) began in Ventura County, California in 1937 under the leadership of R. Keith Walden. Its first venture was a citrus nursery; from there it began growing citrus and, in the mid-1940s, diversified into the production of cereal grains, oil seed crops, cotton, sugar beets, vegetables, melons, potatoes, and alfalfa seed. In 1945 the business became known as FICO.
Feeling that land values were becoming too high in California after World War II, Mr. Walden began looking for cheaper farmland. In 1948 he found what he was looking for in Continental, Arizona, 25 miles south of Tucson and the following year moved FICO’s headquarters to Arizona.
The Continental Farm has a colorful history. Bernard Baruch, Joseph Kennedy and J.P. Morgan founded Continental in 1915 with the plan of growing guayule – a plant that is a source of rubber. There were fears at the time that the Germans might cut off the sea-lanes, blocking rubber imports.
When WWI ended, the project was abandoned. In 1922, the farm was sold to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who rented it to cotton farmers. Sometime in 1948, the farm came on the market and was purchased by FICO.
FICO grew many crops including cotton, the principal cash crop, which was rotated with alfalfa, corn silage, wheat, barley, lettuce and watermelons. At one time, FICO, at its farm in Aguila, Arizona, was the largest grower and shipper of lettuce in the United States.
In 1953, FICO opened a cattle feedlot that grew to 20,000 head. FICO closed the feedlot in 1976, when its operations became incompatible with the growing community of Green Valley.
Mr. Walden was concerned about the development of synthetic fibers, which he felt might decrease the market for cotton. He began to experiment with different crops such as pecans, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, nectarines, apricots and grapes. The crops that thrived the best were grapes and pecans.
Mr. Walden chose pecans over grapes because they have a longer window of harvest and could be machine harvested. In 1965 FICO began converting its cotton farms in Sahuarita and Continental into the world’s largest irrigated pecan orchard. With approximately 6,000 acres & 106,000 trees.
In 1975 a state-of-the-art freezer warehouse and facility for cracking, shelling, grading, packaging, and shipping the nuts was built and began operating.
- Pecan trees are native only to North America.
- Pecan trees can live for hundreds of years.
- Most edible tree nuts are essentially one state crops: almonds, pistachios, walnuts in California; filberts in Oregon and macadamia nuts in Hawaii. The pecan is a multi-state crop, stretching across the country from the Southeast to the Southwest throughout some twenty states. 75% of the world’s pecan crop is grown in the sunbelt region of the U.S. (Southern/Southwest States).
- Georgia is the #1 producing state, Texas is #2, New Mexico is #3 and Arizona is #4.
- World’s largest irrigated pecan orchard with 6,000 acres and 106,000 of Wichita & Western Schley variety of trees.
- Pecans are by nature alternate bearing trees (large crop on year followed by a small crop the next year).
- It takes about seven years after planting for pecan trees to reach an acceptable yield and they need 10 to 12 years to reach maximum productions.
- The average yield per acre is approximately 2000 lbs of inshell pecans. FICO’s orchard is one of the highest producing orchards in the world.
- Warm days, cool nights, good soil and high quality water are the ingredients for our high quality award winning pecans.
- FICO starts irrigating the pecan orchards at bud break in April and continues through October. Pecans are a high water use tree that requires 5 ½ to 6 ½ acre feet of water per year.
- The water is discharged into open canals (irrigation ditches) and siphoned into the orchards.
- Irrigation intervals range from 21 days in spring and fall to 10 days in the summer.
- In 1980 FICO started utilizing a laser-leveled method of irrigation to achieve maximum irrigation efficiency. Since that time, FICO has reduced water usage by 20%.
- Harvest begins in mid to late November and continues through the end of January.
- The harvest is a three-step process: 1) Shake the pecans from the trees 2) Sweep the pecans into a “windrow” and 3) Pickup the windrow with a harvester.
- FICO conducts pruning of the trees to ensure peak production of the crop. After the harvest, the pecan trees are pruned on an “as needed” basis. The trees are pruned with large mechanical machines that have multiple circular saw blades.
- FICO inspects every field during the growing season to determine what fields need to be pruned, based on % of sunlight on the orchard floor from 10:00am to 2:00pm, tree health and crop size.
- FICO has had ongoing pruning experiments from 1975 to present. We experiment with hedging, topping, select pruning and tree removal. As the trees get larger, we have to continue to strive to maintain production, quality and sunlight.
- After pruning, the large diameter wood is cut for firewood, which can be purchased from September through March. The smaller diameter brush is placed in a burning pit and burned with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved air curtain destructor to eliminate smoke pollution into the atmosphere.
- Why are the trees painted white? There are times that some trees may suffer wind damage, or damage from “Texas root rot”. Some trees have been struck by lightening. When trees suffer damage, they must be severely pruned to encourage new growth. To protect the severely pruned trees, they are painted white to prevent sunburn.
- Why do some trees have a band of paint at their base? These paint markings indicate that the tree has had a special out-of-cycle pruning. The pruning may be the result of a poor crop the year before. The trees are marked to make sure the farm manager monitors the production of each specific tree to ensure the best crop.