Our farm is a natural grove, and not a planted orchard. When I was young, we spent a lot of time clearing, as it was overrun with brush, weeds, and smaller less healthy trees that needed to be taken out in order to maneuver around the good ones. This process of clearing took years, for a couple of reasons. First, this was not my parents’ full time job, and second, figuring out which trees to keep and which to cut depended not only on size and location but also on their propensity to produce. My dad would take bright colored plastic tape and mark trees with different colors after observing their ability to produce over a couple of seasons, and finally they got an orange mark if he had decided they needed to come down.
This was a hobby for my parents and a year-round after-school job for me. My sisters and I played a lot in the grove, but we also helped clear and move brush, and picked up an endless number of limbs that the trees seemed to produce even more than pecans.Now, let me take a moment to note that if you are a child with intense organizational or controlling tendencies (not talking about anyone in particular here, of course), this job will make you go crazy. You set out to grab the sticks and limbs and throw them into a pile, thinking, “This is easy!” but you soon wonder “How small is too small to pick up?” or “What sections have I already completed and what’s left?” Our grove was certainly not marked out in a helpful grid, nor was there a guidebook or measuring stick telling you what size of limb would be ok to leave in the grass without being told to go back and do the work again. Amazingly enough, picking up limbs seemed to both encourage and discourage perfectionism all at the same time, which made it a much more mentally taxing job than you’d imagine! But I digress…
Our natural trees are of the “native” variety. For the most part, native pecans have thicker shells, making them a little more difficult to crack and eat, but highly rewarding with a much better taste. The type that you usually get in the grocery store is a large breed with thin, easy-to-crack shells, called “papershells.” So often, though, the taste of papershell pecans is sacrificed for size and ease. Also, just in case you’re interested, another reason that your garden-variety grocery store pecans taste so bland is because they actually need to be refrigerated or frozen after cracking to preserve the flavor of the natural oils. Sometimes the stuff you buy in the store has been sitting out at room temperature for months… maybe even years! Moral of the story: freeze your pecans!No two trees are ever the same. Different native trees produce different pecans: some are small, some round, some large, some elongated. And it’s rarely the same with a given tree each year – some produce like crazy one year and take a break the next. For pecans, mother nature’s recipe must be just right. Sometimes there is no rain when the trees need it most in the spring or late summer, some years it’s too wet, and fungus can take hold, some years a freeze happens too early and the nuts stick to their shells (called “sticktights”), and some years insects like bag worms or weevils devour most of them before you can do much about it. But some years… once or twice a decade… you’ll get a great harvest. Right now, the trees are still reeling from the terrible Oklahoma ice storm of 2007 that mangled many of the major limbs. They are currently busy putting most of their energy into growing limbs vs. growing pecans, so it will be a few more years until they make a full comeback. At harvest time, the time for speculation is over. All spring and summer long the limbs have been picked up, the grove has been mowed, and the brush piles burned. If all goes according to plan, in late October and November the green outer husks shrivel up, turn brown, and begin to open, revealing the pecans inside. When it looks like they’re ready to fall, the first thing we do is call in a “shaker.”
A shaker is an attachment to the back of a tractor, essentially a giant clamp that can be fitted around most trees. It does exactly what you’d imagine: shakes the hell out of a tree. The pecans fall like hail… and guess what else? More limbs. Yeah!
After picking up all of those limbs (again) comes the next step of harvesting. A pecan harvester is a machine (which comes in various forms and sizes) that slowly moves over the ground, circling the trees that have been shaken, sucking up every little thing in it’s path. It expels most of the debris and keeps the nuts, filling up canvas gunnysacks.
The third step if there is a good harvest is to go over the areas around the trees by hand that had been harvested to pick up everything that the machine missed. The harvester typically isn’t able to pick up all of the nuts that fall right around the tree trunk, or in ditches.When I was a kid, my sisters and I had this job as well. However, since we were kids and had pretty short attention spans for this kind of tedious work, dad made it into a competition: “Be the first to pick your weight in pecans!” The winner won something like ice-cream or a $10 shopping spree, but we all knew that the most important prize was eternal glory among sisters. As the oldest, I never believed that this game was quite fair since I had to pick up more than anyone, but it worked. Every once in a while we stumbled across a ditch full of the fallen nuts and we’d scream “GOLDMINE!” which was the signal that the game was on to snatch up as many as we could in that good spot. Even so, I probably spent more of my time sitting on a bucket of pecans daydreaming than anything else.
After everything was at least initially harvested, dad would sell the pecans to a business who would crack them, remove the bad nuts, and resell the finished product to other companies. The by-hand picking in the grove wouldn’t be over for a while, but the main harvest was now over.
Pecans are something I’ve taken for granted as a main ingredient in most of the baking that I do. Nowadays, they’re harder to come by, but I recommend buying them in bulk directly from the source and freezing them until you need them. It’s hard to find native pecans, but I have found good luck with www.PecansNow.com which ships papershell varieties that are still very good. I typically get about 10lbs of the cracked unshelled pecans before the holidays and shell them myself one evening while watching a good Christmas movie, saving some for myself and giving some to family for Christmas baking. If you’re lucky this year and you live in Austin, maybe you’ll get one of my famous pecan pie tarts.
…And THAT is probably way more than you ever wanted to know about pecans. The End!