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Pistachios

By Sharon McIntire Tucked unobtrusively off Haston Road is Creek Farm. But don’t expect an idyllic pastoral scene of gurgling water and rolling farmland. What meets the eye is a grove of small, unimpressive trees, looking a bit dry and weather-beaten. Don’t let that fool you. Those dry, weather-beaten trees are pistachio trees, and they are lovingly pampered and fussed over by a father-son partnership that is protecting and nurturing a fortune. No child ever got more attention or elicited such pride as those 466 trees. The “creek” in Creek Farm comes not from water, but from the farmers themselves. John and James Creek are registered members of the Oklahoma Creek Indian tribe, and are proud of their heritage. They’re even more proud of their new family. Creek Farm began in 2011 when they decided that 26 years was long enough to spend haggling over cars. They sold their Action Auto business, bought 3-year-old trees from Pistachio Tree Ranch in Alamogordo, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work. “We’re the only pistachio orchard in commercial production in Carlsbad and Eddy County,” John proudly announces. “We didn’t want to do pecans –everybody does pecans. ”They confess they’ve taken on more than they’d expected to. “These guys that are growing pecans,” Jim says, “they have no idea what we do. I can see now why they’re not growing pistachios. There’s a lot to it. But you can sell these pistachios for a lot more than pecans. That’s why they’re so expensive; people don’t realize what you have to go through to get them ready for eating. ”While most farmers in this area irrigate their fields, the Creeks use a drip system operated from their well. “The drip systems are probably about a thousand times more efficient,” Jim states, “because the water goes straight to the tree .“In the winter when the leaves fall off, these look like stick people out here,” Jim admits. But he waxes poetic when he describes the transformation in the spring. “You need to see them in March. When the leaves come back on, they’re the most beautiful color –they’re an emerald green –it's the most brilliant emerald green. By mid-April you’d be shocked at what they look like. ”And that’s when they get to work. These father hens start coddling their babies in March as the weather warms and the trees come to life. “When spring gets here, we spray all the way around the trees with fish emollient. We make sure the trees get plenty of water, especially in the spring, because they’re just starting to wake up and the sap is going back up into the tree and that’s when they really need the food –the fish emollient and the water. “We water each tree: 200 gallons for each tree. But it’s with a drip system so there’s no waste; there's no water going in between the trees. We’re not watering weeds; we’re watering the trees directly. Each tree has a dripper and they’re two gallon an hour so we have to walk the lines and tap them to make sure the drippers aren’t plugged up. That takes care of the soil, where everything is happening.” But they also pamper the pistachios’ leaves, spraying them with a Norwegian seaweed which goes through the leaves into the roots. The seaweed not only feeds the roots, but also protects the delicate plants from winter frost. “We do both the fish emollient and the seaweed twice a year, so everything we do is liquid fertilizer. We’re not using any hard, organic compounds, and the trees are just doing fabulous. ”Pistachios are very thirsty trees. “Pistachios are related to almonds and cashews. Just one almond requires about two gallons of water –just one almond! So we start watering in March, two gallons of water per tree every ten days up until harvest time, and then we quit watering and do our harvest. We still water all year, enough to keep the roots wet, but we’ll only water about once a month in the winter. ”New Mexico does a great job of the other springtime necessity: pollination. Pistachios are pollinated by the wind. So while most New Mexicans complain and grouse about the clouds of dust that arrive with spring, these proud parents are contentedly watching their family grow. Summer is harvest time, but it comes late. “We only harvest once. The trees favor hot conditions with temperatures in the triple digits because they’re from the Middle East –from Iran –and that’s what they’re used to. You can’t grow them everywhere. In 1981 California started growing them, and now you have people growing them in Arizona and here in New Mexico. But they’ll only grow in the west part of Texas where they have desert conditions as well. ”Harvesting is hard work. Each tree has to be shaken by hand until the nuts fall onto an Australian Olly net which has been wrapped around the entire circumference of the tree. From there they slide into one of three boxes placed strategically under the net. “That way everything stays clean and fresh,” he explains. “We generally get between 20-40 pounds of nuts per tree. We’ll probably harvest about 1500 pounds this year. If we’d gotten any rain this spring it would probably have been about twice that much.” After harvesting, the pistachios are babysat through processing. Using the sanding disc on a potato peeler (a vastly different tool than the one that comes to most people’s minds) the soft, outer flesh of the pistachio, or pericarp, is removed –and saved, of course, for compost. Then the nuts are salted or, a new treat for 2020, soaked in red chile before being placed outside to sunbathe on drying racks. From the drying racks they’re baked and bagged and given the stamp of approval: the Creek Indian logo that reminds the buyer that these pistachios have been pampered, protected and babied to perfection in a totally organic process. This family is plagued with childhood diseases just as any other family might be. But their primary worry is a fungus called phymatotricum root rot, or Texas root rot. “It kills over 2300 different varieties of broadleaf plants,” Jim laments, “and they love killing fruit trees. You can tell right away when the leaves start to turn a different color. It attacks the roots of the tree and turns it into kind of a bronze color and automatically cuts the water off to the top of the tree – that's how bad this stuff is. Your tree will die in two days. It doesn’t matter how big your tree is; if this stuff attacks your tree, it will kill it in two days. “We had to figure out a way to take care of that. We started driving holes in the ground with metal stakes as far down as we could go, about three to four feet, because that’s where most of it resides. We’d make about four holes per tree and then I’d take a five-gallon bucket filled with chicken manure. That’s why I have chickens,” he added with a grin, “to save my trees. (That’s not true, of course: Creek Farm also sells chicken eggs –and cantaloupe -and watermelon). “So you take about a half-shovel of fresh chicken manure out of their pen and dump it in a bucket. Then you fill the bucket up with water and stir it around real good and pour it into those holes. And the ammonia or whatever is in that chicken manure drives that fungus back. It doesn’t work all the time, but I’d say at least 60 percent of the time it works as long as you get down to where the fungus is. “And so I’ve devised a way to at least stave it off, and I think since I’ve been using the emollient and the seaweed, it’s making the soil more organic. There’s so much more going on underneath the soil than above: there’s all kinds of microorganisms and stuff down there going crazy. You want to make it as organic as possible underneath because this fungus doesn’t like organic. ”After the harvest, these proud parents introduce their family to society. Their work “in the car business” has made this easier. “If it wasn’t for Action Auto, we wouldn’t have had the money to put this in, or buy the land, or anything. “We had to buy so much equipment to get this thing going,” he admits. “For example, that Olly net cost $5800. The well was $15,000. So it was just a lot of money out. We haven’t really got started getting anything back until this year. But now that it has, it will just keep going. “It’s not just the growing. Once you get everything packaged up and ready to go, then you’ve got to sell it. We have to be the growers, we have to be the sellers, marketers. We have to wear all the hats. “The car business taught me a lot. It gave me a lot of experience with people as well as with business, and it showed me how to sell, and how to market, and how to advertise. It’s almost like I was supposed to do this.” At this point there are three stores in Carlsbad that offer Creek Farm Pistachios for sale: Lakeside Meats, Candlewood Cards and Gifts, and Trinity Hotel and Restaurant. If there were extra pistachios, they sold them the weekly Farmers Market at the courthouse. “Dale and Janie Balzano sell a lot of our products at the Trinity, especially during the holidays when they put them in their gift baskets,” he notes. “And Elaine at Candlewood sold some of our pistachios internationally. Some of them ended up in Canada, so we’re internationally known now. That’s pretty cool!” The pistachios themselves help with the marketing, too: their list of benefits is impressive. According to Medical News Today, pistachios are: rich in nutrients (especially the Vitamin B family), low in calories, packed with antioxidants, and high in fiber and protein. In addition, they help prevent macular degeneration and cataracts, lower blood pressure and the risk of diabetes, and help to control cholesterol. “I’m happy to be selling good food to people,” he boasts. “Pistachios are the best legume you can buy on the market. They're better than almonds, walnuts, cashews. They’re better than all of them. ”To avoid empty nest syndrome these proud fathers spend the winter pruning trees and, yes, watering. Although the trees need much less of that valuable resource during their dormant months, these diligent dads make sure the roots stay damp by watering once a month and keeping the drip system flowing. If the Creek pistachio family continues to flourish under all this loving care, the dads may have a dilemma. So far, these trees are teenagers. They will mature in five to ten years, producing 20-40 pounds of pistachios per tree. If all their children survive, they estimate a yearly crop of close to 20,000 pistachios. And pistachio trees can live 600 years. One or two dads may need to get married and raise a bunch of workers so they’ll have someone to help nurture their budding pistachio family.

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