The Best Dill in Texas

Stephen after finishing a long day of working with farmers preparing for cucumber planting season.

The hot and dry growing conditions that often accompany the growing season in Hale County, Texas, can really put farmers in a pickle. However, some farmers in West Texas say the tough growing conditions are no big “dill.”

When driving through Hale County, one can expect to see cotton or wheat in the fields, but many would be surprised to see cucumbers growing.

Plainview farmer, Donald Ebeling grows cucumbers as a unique specialty crop with a short growing season. He has grown cucumbers for Best Maid for over five years. He said Best Maid supplies the seed, plants the seed, provides bees for pollination, and harvests the cucumbers.

“People always think all we grow is cotton out here,” Ebeling said, “but cucumbers grow perfectly in our soil, and our summer rains really help with the cucumber’s short growing season.”

He said the sandy loam soil in West Texas gives farmers the potential to grow almost any crop, but the fear of running out of water holds them back. The decreasing water supply along with continually fluctuating commodity prices impacts the acres of irrigated crops that farmers can grow on this fertile soil.

He said rotation crops create biodiversity in the soil and help break up the irrigation cycle. Cucumbers are especially good for the irrigation demand because they only grow for 45 days. The short growing season allows farmers to get a crop in and out of the ground in time to utilize their water on other slower maturing crops, like cotton.

How This Whole “Dill” Works

Over 60 percent of the pickles Best Maid sells each year are grown in West Texas. Best Maid is the only major pickle company in Texas, contracting 3,000 acres of cucumbers from West Texas farmers, including Ebeling.

Stephen Goetz, Best Maid crop production manager, said cucumbers have a very short growing season compared to many other crops traditionally grown in West Texas. He said his crew plants, hoes, cultivates, and harvests all the cucumbers in the 45-day growing season. His crews start planting on May 25 and finish Aug. 5 and start harvest on July 15 and finish Sept. 20. His job requires him to dedicate a lot of time to checking each field multiple times a day, because cucumbers grow rapidly.

Goetz said Best Maid has two specialized harvesters that simultaneously harvest and cull cucumbers in the field that are either too big or too small. The cucumbers leave the field and go to a pickle shed in Halfway, Texas, where they are hand sorted and graded. The cucumbers are then sent to a tank yard in Mansfield, Texas, to be brined and the fresh cucumbers become pickles. The pickles then go to the pickling factory in Fort Worth to get processed. The West Texas grown pickles grown in West Texas are used for hamburger slices, pickle spears and pickle relish.

Best Maid is one of the only companies in the United States that maintains control of their product from the time it is planted to the time it is on the shelf at the grocery store.

“You know you are eating a good pickle when it comes out of a Best Maid jar,” Goetz said.

Best Maid is the only major pickle company in Texas.

Growing Pains

Cucumbers require warm, dry weather and heavy irrigation, and West Texas summers are known for the unpredictable weather and storms. Ebeling said the biggest risk associated with growing cucumbers is the weather because they are a very fragile crop, but he has learned to just “dill” with the unpredictable weather, such as sand storms and hail storms.

“The cucumbers can be insured as a non-insurable crop,” Ebeling said. “Sounds like an oxymoron, but it is important with the weather we have in West Texas to insure them.”

A Great “Dill”

Ebeling said he enjoys farming because he loves the process and the challenge. He said the cucumbers are a fun crop to grow because they are quick and a nice break from the normal crops he produces each year. Cucumbers can be a challenging crop because timing is not just important, it is crucial. The cucumbers must be watered, sprayed and harvested at the exact right time.

He said an additional benefit associated with growing cucumbers is the cucumbers that are left in the fields can be fed to cows during dry years. Best Maid also allows their producers to feed the cull cucumbers from the pickle shed to their cows.

Ebeling said he enjoys growing cucumbers and other challenging crops, and looks forward to working with Best Maid for many years to come.

If happy cows come from California, then happy pickles come from West Texas.

A Specialized Operation

Ebeling also farms cotton, sorghum, millet, wheat, rye, oats, and corn. In addition, he has a commercial cow-calf operation and runs stocker cattle. He said he always knew he wanted to be farmer. As a young boy his favorite thing to do was help his grandpa take care of the garden. At an early age he realized he wanted a big garden of his own to take care of every day, so he decided to become a farmer.

“My grandpa was a farmer and he was my best friend,” Ebeling said with a smile. “He would let me go to work with him, but it never felt like work to me and to this day it does not feel like work.”

Ebeling said he enjoys farming because it is challenging and always something different every day. He said he feels extremely blessed to be able to do what he loves for living. He said he has a passion for raising crops, but the crop he enjoys raising the most is kids, not just his two children, but also other children in the community.

“I love farming because it is a long and challenging process, just like raising kids,” Ebeling said. “But, when you put in the work and pray a little, the end result is almost always good.”