Tough Nuts to Crack

By a comfortable margin, Georgia—yes, Georgia—is now the nation’s top pecan-producing state. What are Texas growers doing to reclaim the lead? Not enough.

March 1996By Comments

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 harvesting pecans, initially with a pole and buckets, then with the first mechanical harvester the area had ever seen. In the late seventies they started working pecans in “shares”; people who had trees but didn’t want to work year-round relied on the Olivers for care and harvesting in exchange for a share of the crop. Business grew so quickly that in 1979 the Olivers invested in fifteen pieces of harvesting equipment.

Today, the Oliver Pecan Company is one of the state’s largest pecan accumulators. As a middleman between growers and shellers, Oliver pays 60 to 90 cents a pound for up to 12 million pounds of pecans a season, everything from grocery bags full of backyard pecans to trailer-truckloads weighing thousands of pounds. He even buys in several areas of the state to hedge against drought, the pecan nut casebearer, stink bugs, and other catastrophes.

Buying, however, is the easy part. To make a decent living in the pecan business, Oliver has had to diversify. A new division overseen by his son, Shawn, produces pecan honey butter for the lucrative gourmet food market. And, of course, Oliver has had to seek out the pecan-shelling operations that will give him the best price. Some are as far away as Georgia and the Carolinas, but since the cost of trucking the nuts across the country cuts into profits, he likes to stay closer to home. These days he has a choice of a dozen or so shellers scattered across Texas, including six large ones run by out-of-state conglomerates that recognize our strategic location at the buckle of the pecan belt, which stretches from the Carolinas to Southern California and down into Mexico.

“The more shellers the better,” Oliver says—yet some of his fellow San Sabans are nervous about the arrival of the out-of-staters. “Three or four big players are muscling in to buy up local companies,” a city father told me. “One of them is from California, and the other has got ties to the underworld.” The truth isn’t quite that juicy. Yes, several big operations have opened for business in Texas over the past few seasons. Yes, several are owned by out-of-staters. But there is no evidence of anything seamy. The rumors seem to have been driven by the Italian-sounding names of two of the owners: Jasper Sanfilippo, of the Chicago-based John B. Sanfilippo and Company, the new parent company of Sunshine Nut Company in Selma, Texas; and Sam DiGregorio, of Chicago’s SNA, which had a pecan operation in the El Paso area before going bankrupt and selling to Morven Partners of Virginia, which bought San Saba Pecan around the same time.

Rather than fretting over who owns these newcomers to the Texas market, one prominent pecan expert says, Texas growers ought to organize to give themselves some leverage. “As it is now,” he notes, “growers take the greatest risk, and they get the smallest percent of profit.” This expert believes they’re missing the opportunity to integrate their businesses vertically. “When these guys start selling kernels instead of pecans,” he says, “they’ll start making money.” In other words, when growers, in some kind of cooperative arrangement, start shelling their own pecans, they won’t have to take whatever price the big shellers deign to offer. If the small growers would go in together and buy one of the new, vastly improved cracking machines on the market, the pecan expert suggests, they would quickly recoup their investment.

Yet unlike pecan growers in Georgia, who are tightly organized, Texas pecan growers are notoriously independent. They have little in common; they range from people who thrash a single tree in their front yards to owners with thousand-acre orchards. And they don’t much like pooling their resources, as Cindy Wise discovered in 1992, when the Texas Pecan Growers board encouraged its membership to support a national industry-wide marketing effort overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She and some of the larger pecan growers envisioned some sort of gimmicky campaign—dancing nuts maybe, like the California raisins. To fund it, growers would pay an assessment of half a cent per pound on in-shell pecans and 1 cent per pound for shelled nuts; the accumulators and the shellers would be the tax collectors.

The plan’s supporters intended to target nut nuts north of the Mason-Dixon line. “Taste tests and research show that the pecan is the nation’s preferred nut,” Wise says, “but it’s not as well known outside of the South.” The marketing campaign sought to educate Northerners about the true taste of pecans. Pecans have a high oil content—that’s what gives them their rich flavor—so they need to be frozen when shipped; otherwise, they turn rancid. If Northerners knew how a good pecan really tasted, the reasoning went, a market would develop and grocers would buy nut freezers for proper storage.

The pecan marketing effort raised close to $700,000. The pecan industry created a marketing board, created ad copy, and worked out a joint promotion with the International Ice Cream Association (butter-pecan is America’s fifth favorite flavor). They even sent a pecan basket to Willard Scott of the Today show. Yet there was no way to measure the success of those early initiatives, and before long, some Texas growers and accumulators began to ridicule the effort. They grumbled about the silliness of the campaign and about “taxation without representation.” Since they do a lot of their business on a cash basis—some of it, just maybe, unreported—they didn’t cotton to the idea that their records would be open to inspection. When, after two seasons, they got their chance to vote on the plan, they rejected it overwhelmingly. “There was lots of animosity,” Wise recalls.

Wise still insists that pecan production is ripe for expansion, particularly in the western reaches of the pecan belt. She’d like to see another marketing effort soon, perhaps a more limited statewide approach similar to one in Georgia in which growers with thirty acres or fewer would be tax exempt. But without the cooperation of growers of all sizes, all she and other pecan pros can do is keep pushing for a managed approach.

That’s what A&M’s McEachern was doing one morning toward the end of the harvest season as he stood beside a backyard swimming pool on a family farm near Devine, south of San Antonio. In his friendly drawl, he sought to cajole sixty or so South Texas growers into using more scientific farming methods. The growers, most of them older white men wearing caps or cowboy hats, sat on folding chairs and listened for nearly an hour as McEachern dispensed practical advice about the importance of tree spacing, nitrogen and zinc fertilizing, and giving trees the right amount of water. The scientific approach, McEachern told the growers, was the key to Georgia’s success—even with thin, worn-out soil. It would be the key to their success as well.

“We’re entering a brand-new era here in 1996,” McEachern said optimistically, and the growers seemed receptive enough to his ideas. But he had a lot of history to contend with, and in his heart he knew they would be tough nuts to crack.

Freelance writer Joe Holley lives in Austin.

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