Black-eyed peas and vertical integration

Photos by Don Dale.
Chad Nickels and his father Nicky discuss the 2007 prospects for their black-eyed pea crop in front of the 70 elevated railcars they use for pea storage and fumigation.

You know upon driving onto the property of Muleshoe Pea & Bean that something different is in the air. The elevated railcars are one cog in a big wheel that comprises a unique farming operation focused on the growing, cleaning, storage and transportation of black-eyed peas. The family that owns this vertically integrated business is fully committed to peas as the backbone of a business that supports many people in and around Muleshoe, Texas.

The Nickels family has been farming in this part of east Texas for three generations, but when Nicky Nickels started growing cotton and alfalfa here in the ’70s under the tutelage of his father, Ed, there were no black-eyed peas being grown locally. With the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer and the farm’s water supply, the family needed to make a move. The traditional crops simply used too much water and brought in too little income.

“We were looking for another crop, and the peas do a good job for us,” says Nicky, whose three sons are also engaged in the business, along with his father and several other family members. His son Chad helps his father run Muleshoe Pea & Bean and grows some crops, while brothers Trey and Guy do most of the actual farming. The company handles all of the family black-eyes, as well as much of the crop grown by other area farmers. Those railcars on stilts are an important part of the process.

That a vegetable crop uses less water than commodity and row crops may be a surprise to some, but the black-eyed pea is an unusual crop. Unlike other beans, such as pintos and limas, which the Nickels have grown in the past, it’s a short-season crop. It requires only 90 days rather than the customary 120 days for most beans, so it not only lends itself to water-shy regions, it also opens up the possibility for double-cropping. If you want to grow it dryland, it can actually yield more than maize. Yet, its cultural practices are much like those for cotton, and its economics are better than even high-return corn.

The basic Nickels program is to grow no-till peas in a double-crop after wheat. When the wheat is harvested in June, the peas are planted right in that stubble on flat fields with a preemergent herbicide like Duel or Treflan to prevent competition with weeds such as pigweed. They use a Case vacuum planter or a wheat drill, planting the seeds an inch deep any time from late June through July 10. The stubble isn’t a problem.

“It helps build a canopy,” says Chad, because the pea plants will use the wheat stubble for support. In addition, there will be less damage to germinating plants from wind or wind-blown sand, which can really howl out here near the New Mexico border. The stubble helps hold both the soil and the pea plants in place. Another option is to treat peas as the primary crop and plant them in the spring as soon as soil temperatures reach 60 degrees. This single-crop methodology will bring higher yields than planting behind wheat.

Most of the black-eyes are now planted under center pivot sprinklers, says Trey, who with Guy oversees the bulk of the family crops with 18 pivots under their management. The peas are irrigated up after planting, and a critical irrigation is the one just prior to bloom. Trey will also begin fertigation through the sprinkler system at that time, based on a soil test. The peas use 50 to 75 units of nitrogen in a season, about the same as cotton, but they use only about 12 to 14 inches of water.

Nicky points out that peas are an extremely flexible crop, regarding inputs. If you have the water and want to grow 4,000 pounds per acre, go ahead and irrigate and fertilize well. If you want to aim for a minimum-input crop and get 2,000 pounds, grow them dryland, as he does on one field that has poor water. “We keep our input costs down,” he says, but on their better, sandy-loam fields where they have a good water supply they will push them a bit.

Insect pressure can also be variable. Last year, the Nickles didn’t have to spray at all for pests, but some years stinkbugs or lygus bugs can do damage that affects the bean pod. Armyworms can also drill into the pod. The Nickels use appropriate registered treatments, and generally rely on cultivation for weed control once past planting. They don’t like to use herbicides after that because they can carry over and affect the winter wheat crop.

“If you have a good rotation you can keep your chemical use down,” Nicky says. The peas, being a legume, are good for the ground and any following crops. They generally choose rotation crops based in large part on the potential price for those crops. Wheat is a staple because it fits so well with peas.

Corn is the big competition this year because of its high price as an ethanol source, but it also requires 40 to 50 inches of water. Many growers in the area are putting in a lot of corn, but the Nickels are still focused on peas. There’s a good reason: they say that growing minimum-input peas at 2,000 pounds per acre will bring $600 for that acre of ground. An acre of corn, pushed to the limit and yielding 12,000 pounds, will bring $720 per acre, but its profits are lower because of the inputs needed to get there.

“You’re looking at $350 net profit with black-eyes,” Nicky says, and that’s double what he will make on corn. They can get a thousand pounds of dryland peas if they only get a couple of good rains, or they can push inputs if prices indicate this will pay off. Black-eyes, unlike many other crops, are versatile enough to bring a reward regardless of which management style is used in growing them.

Trey notes that center pivots are ideal for peas because he can calculate precisely what irrigation input he wants, balanced against yield, and he can manage the water to minimize mold and other disease in the crop. They also have 80 acres installed with subsurface drip tape. Although peas can be grown over drip, the family generally chooses not to because of the reliance on a good rain to germinate the seed.

“You can really micromanage your crop with drip irrigation,” Trey says, but it also can be used for various crops. This year, the drip is irrigating alfalfa for hay because of the high market value to dairies moving into the region.

By the end of the season Trey wants to have a knee-high black-eyed pea plant. Not so tall it is vegetative and lodges, but not so short that they can’t get under it with a combine. He will either combine it using flex headers, or swath it in order to dry it down and then combine it later. He can also choose to defoliate short plants and combine them the way he would soybeans. A primary concern is to dry them well to avoid any stains on the peas, which decreases price.

The Nickels have four semi-hopper trailers, which they use to haul the peas to their own pea plant in Muleshoe. This is where those railcars come into the picture. Nicky, who built this business in 1995, started installing the railcars in ’97. Now he has 70 of them elevated high enough that a truck can drive underneath them. They were installed by a crane lifting them onto well casing stilts.

Although the railcars were cheap, they ended up being pretty expensive because of the cost of getting them in place. The cars, each of which holds a semi-load of peas, are crucial elements in the business. Nicky says their greatest benefits are that they allow the company to segregate peas by owner, by field or by quality—peas are sampled and graded prior to placement in the cars. This pays benefits later, as they avoid mixing different quality peas, thus maximizing price on the best ones. There is also a significant amount of organic black-eyes grown locally, and the Nickels designate specific railcars for those peas in order to avoid any contamination with nonorganic crops.

Also, the hopper railcars, which together hold 14 million pounds of peas, allow them to fumigate and store the black-eyes for long periods of time and pick time of sale based on favorable market. They can also be placed in the cars, then gently dumped into trucks for movement into the cleaning plant, with minimal cracking.

Photos by Don Dale.
Chad Nickels and his father Nicky discuss the 2007 prospects for their black-eyed pea crop in front of the 70 elevated railcars they use for pea storage and fumigation.

Because they are not moved by auger, there is little physical damage, which would bring a sharp decrease in price. The Nickels family uses a custom made, 120-foot conveyor belt mounted on the side of a tractor to transfer the peas from semi to railcar, and uses hopper dumps to transfer to the cleaning plant. The distance of every dump is calculated and minimized to reduce the chance of cracking.

With their own cleaning facility and a huge storage warehouse, Muleshoe Pea & Bean is able to keep the area’s entire pea crop under the highest quality control. Other growers who use their facility do so because every move the peas make is managed to maximize price and profit. After cleaning, the peas are put in 2,000-pound tote bags for storage and transportation, and the company also bags some in 50-pound sacks or other containers if clients request this. Should there be a problem ora grower question later, the company’s bar-coded record keeping system allows the company to trace each lot’s history right back to the field. It’s all part of the company’s quality-consciousness.

Trey Nickels walks a field where black-eyed peas will be planted no-till under a center pivot sprinkler in Muleshoe, Texas.

The family has a huge investment in this facility, but in the end it saves them many costs and ensures them top price for well-handled peas. In addition, they store and clean peas for 30 to 150 other pea growers in any given year. With seven family members involved in the business—Nicky’s wife Debbie does the marketing, and Chad’s wife Kayla is the office manager—they rely a lot on peas for keeping the entire family going. They will also do custom harvesting and cleaning of pea and bean crops as well as small grains.

Nicky wants to keep some of his information to himself, such as total crop produced, because his main competitor is California and he can’t divulge information that might hurt his final income. However, he allows that he and other local growers grow a significant percentage of the Texas crop, and even in years like this when corn prices are high, peas will be a more profitable crop. Black-eyed pea prices could be high in years like this because acreage will be limited by attractive corn and hay prices The Nickels family is growing some corn, but its main focus is on peas.

People driving into Mule-shoe see those railcars on stilts and ask what the heck is going on. They sense that something interesting is happening here. Little do they know that the answer to their question is the humble black-eyed pea.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.