Jun 3, 2016
Arizona farm picks millions of pounds of hot, mild varieties

Rob Knorr picks 25 million pounds of peppers annually – jalapenos, both hot and mild – at his desert farm in Maricopa, Arizona.

Although it’s more than tripled from the original thousand acres purchased in 1994, RK Farms is still family owned and operated, by a fourth-generation farmer originally from Minot, North Dakota.

“My great-great-grandfather brought his threshing machine along when he homesteaded, and my family has been dryland farming in central North Dakota for a long time,” Knorr said. “Dad and my younger brother still work that land, while I broke new ground in Arizona. At different times, my uncle and grandfather have been a part of the collective efforts, so we’re still very much a family operation.”

Rob Knorr, owner of RK Farms, checks arriving peppers from the field. Transplanted in March, peppers are picke dtwo or three times before frost arrives in December.
Rob Knorr, owner of RK Farms, checks arriving peppers from the field. Transplanted in March, peppers are picke dtwo or three times before frost arrives in December. Photos: Lee Allen

Tilled acreage in North Dakota runs about 5,000, with similar-sized lands in the Arizona operation. When all systems are go, RK Farms in the desert will harvest up to 25 million pounds of jalapenos annually, in varieties ranging from sweet mild to fiery hot.

“The first crop we grew in Arizona 20 years ago was Durham wheat for pasta, because that’s what we knew how to grow back then. What drew us to Arizona is the fact you can grow crops here all year long, and depending on the crop, sometimes with two to three harvest cycles, as long as you have water, sunlight, a soil with proper nutrients and fertilizers. Over the course of time, we’ve experimented with lots of crops, from cotton to spinach, corn, cantaloupe, honeydews, potatoes, sorghum, dry field peas, and pinto beans – but the niche market of jalapenos is our forte.

“Although there are 4,000 varieties of peppers in all different colors, tastes, textures and heat levels, we focus on the two most commercially viable non-bell varieties of jalapeno and long-green Anaheim chiles.”

Standing amid one of the 11-acre, drip-irrigated blocks of peppers, Steve Todd, logistics and cooling facility manager, explained that each plant will be harvested by hand. While field pickers filled their buckets and hauled them to a transport truck, Todd noted: “We’ll probably pull in close to 40,000 pounds today because each worker usually picks about a thousand pounds during a shift.”

And they sell every pound they pick.

“There are few growers and few processors,” Knorr said. “And what makes us unique is our central Arizona window of harvest, picking in June-July and again in October through early December before frosts arrive and we’re done for the year. During that 60-day early burst of activity and the second 60 days in late fall, we supply peppers to about 85 percent of the major salsa labels on the market.”

The reason that window of opportunity is important is that peppers are typically not produced in one North American growing region year round for a myriad of reasons, ranging from heat, frost, wind, rain, insects and disease. So processors that want fresh ingredients have to pull from different geographical regions from Canada to Mexico to ensure a crop to process all year long.

During winter months, most jalapenos come out of Mexico in a season that ends in May. Southern California (Kern County/ Bakersfield) doesn’t ramp up until the early part of July. If Mexico finishes early and California runs late, there’s a huge gap in supply, and that’s when Rob Knorr gets crowned the Prince of Peppers.

“Processors start calling and asking if we can fill those empty spaces during those transitions. We understand the market and our client needs and we’ve developed production techniques to be busy during those down times. And for doing that, we get paid a premium price for peppers that can’t be sourced elsewhere.”

Seedlings go in the ground in early March, and RK Farms averages about 17,000 plants per acre with every one gently hand- loaded into a mechanical planter. Three months later it’s time for the first harvest, where each 2.5-to-3-foot tall plant will produce 25 to 35 pods to be picked multiple times during a growing season.

Todd says the 2015 season produced a significantly better yield.

“Our spring 2015 crop was about 30 percent higher on a per-acre basis than it was in 2014,” he said, remembering that by week three of the summer harvest, as peppers began ripening rapidly, “we had a million pounds in the cooler ready for transport, with another 200,000 pounds coming in daily to be cooled.”

The fickleness of Mother Nature makes no two days alike.

RKFarmsPeppers

“Everything is a variable,” Todd said with a smile, “from weather to the size of the harvest crew to customer demand or trucks that break down on the way to a processing plant. You just work through a series of issues and find solutions on the fly. If you don’t like problem-solving or dealing with change, you’d go crazy here.”

Head honcho Knorr is stoic about the things that can go wrong, and with an educational background in subjects like crop and weed science, plant protection, biotechnology and molecular plant genetics, he is determined to make a difference through innovation and mechanization.

“Science and technology will change the way we do things,” he said. “I watched my grandfather go from horse and plow to steel wheels, then rubber wheels, from hand thrashing to a combine with air conditioning. Before he died at age 94, he got to sit on a tractor, push a button and the tractor drove itself. To go from a horse to a tractor with GPS in one man’s lifetime is pretty unbelievable, and I can’t imagine what’s going to happen in my lifetime. I do know that science and technology in agriculture will define what we do in order to stay ahead of the population curve that’s coming and the productivity curve we will need to stay competitive in a global market. Scientific and technological advancements will allow us to produce more, at a lower per-unit cost, than we could have ever done in the past.”

— Lee Allen, VGN correspondent

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