IN TEXAS PAEANS TO THE PECAN COME NATURALLY. Not only is the pecan our state tree, but nuts from Texas, where the pecan is believed to have originated millions of years ago, are still the biggest and the best in the world. In the sixteenth century several Native American tribes subsisted on Texas pecans a couple of months out of every year. The Texas A&M Aggies, people who know their football and their nuts, named their football stadium in honor of a longtime professor of pecan culture, Edwin Jackson Kyle.
Because of our enduring love affair with the pecan, it makes sense that our hearts would swell with pride when the Olympic flame begins wending its way across the country to Atlanta this spring for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. After all, the handles for the 10,000 torches to be used on the trek will be made of pecan wood from the state that leads the nation in pecan production. Except it isn’t Texas; it’s Georgia. Despite our history, despite deep pecan-nurturing sandy-loam soil, despite a climate generally agreeable to pecan production, the Peach State, not the Lone Star State, is the nation’s preeminent pecan grower—and has been, believe it or not, for three decades. Texas produces some 60 million pounds of pecans a year. Georgia, despite poor soil and too many of nature’s pests, produces 80 million. Texas’ pecan crop was worth $59 million in 1995, while Georgia’s was worth $85 million.
That disparity is so frustrating to pecan experts like George Ray McEachern, the state’s extension pecan specialist, that it threatens to drive them, well, nuts. “We’ve got 67,500 acres of planted orchards in Texas, and we’ve never produced 67,500,000 pounds of pecans,” he complained to a group of South Texas pecan growers recently. “Georgia soil is pitiful, but they’ve got 110,000 acres of pecans—which they brought in from Texas, by the way—and over the years they have averaged a thousand pounds per acre. Now that bothers me. It bothers me bad.”
It wasn’t that long ago, of course, that pecan harvesters in Texas relied on cane poles and gallon buckets, first straining to knock the nuts to the ground and then stooping to collect them one at a time. Yet like most agricultural enterprises in this country, the Texas pecan business has gone from “hand labor and hand harvesting to a highly mechanized industry,” in the words of Cindy Wise, the executive vice president of the Texas Pecan Growers Association. Now a machine grips the trunk of a tree and shakes the nuts off, and a mechanical harvester with nubby rubber fingers picks them off the ground. A mature tree surrenders its bounty in minutes, and a good-sized orchard can be harvested in a matter of hours.
But new equipment is only part of what pecan pros think growers need. A pecan operation these days also must be closely managed; a successful grower has to rely on the kind of scientific approach that McEachern and other experts preach. More important, a grower has to employ modern techniques, such as marketing campaigns and industry-wide organizing to cut better deals with the food processors that use pecans in things like candy. And this is where small Texas growers—who produce up to 70 percent of the state’s harvest—have fallen short. At nearly every turn, unlike their Georgia counterparts, they’ve resisted efforts to change with the times.
As much as anywhere else in Texas, new ideas clash with the old way in San Saba, the tranquil little town along the banks of the San Saba River that is the heart of the Texas pecan business. San Saba County used to produce the most pecans and the most varieties of improved pecans (or cultivars) in Texas—and the nation—although it has been years since the so-called Pecan Capital of the World could make that claim. Still, San Saba is devoted to the pecan. It was a San Saban named Edmund E. Risien, townspeople insist, who first turned pecan growing into a viable enterprise. Born in England, Risien immigrated to this country in 1872 and two years later was on his way to California when his stagecoach stopped in San Saba. As his granddaughter Elsie Millican tells the story, Risien was down to his last dollar and a half when he got to the frontier community. A cabinetmaker by trade, he hired on with a local blacksmith just before two men were strung up by a lynch mob: His first job was to build their coffins.
Something of a rural polymath, Risien kept bees, built a bathhouse and waterworks for San Saba, and experimented with pecans. The vast stands of pecan trees along the creeks and in the river bottoms fascinated him, and from a mother tree he discovered at the juncture of the San Saba and Colorado rivers, he began working to improve the native nut. That tree became his lab; among the cultivars he introduced are the San Saba Improved, the Western Schley, and the Squirrel’s Delight.
Risien, who died in 1940, was a tireless pecan promoter. He shipped paper-shell pecans to President William McKinley, Queen Victoria, and poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and for years he offered a $5 prize for the best pecans of the season. According to local folklore, in 1893 he took a display of prizewinners, arranged like a cluster of grapes, to Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition. C. W. Post, the cereal magnate, happened to see the display and said, “Look at those grape nuts.” The rest is breakfast history. “What granddaddy proved,” says Millican, who’s now 81, “is that money does grow on trees.”
Many decades later, numerous San Sabans believe that credo—or they’d like to. Take Gordon Lee Oliver, a 57-year-old grower and “accumulator,” or pecan broker, who owns the Oliver Pecan Company, a modest-looking operation on Wallace Street downtown. Back in 1970, he and his wife, Clydene, bought a grove of one hundred trees near Bend, a tiny community on the Colorado. They began