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National Pecan Day: Rethinking Pecan Production in Texas

by Caroline Grape
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native pecan nuts

What comes to your mind when you hear PECAN? Let me guess. Your ‘sacred’ pecan pie recipe? Or the annual ritual of gathering and eating pecans every second November while being nice enough to allow the squirrels to have their fair share of the bounty? No matter what comes to your mind, I’m quite sure that it’s a beautiful reminiscence of this amazing nut that has over time built a strong connection with Texans.

Every year, National Pecan Day is held to celebrate the history and the value of pecans to the American lifestyle. This year is no exception! April 14, 2021 marks another National Pecan Day. And it provides a time to explore your pecan recipes and to recognize the effort of pecan growers who have over the years become the custodian of this nut.

History and Significance of the Pecan in Texas

pecan nutsPecan production can be traced far back to the prehistoric times. Records indicate that several Native American tribes subsisted on it a couple of times each year in the sixteenth century and pecan nuts were exported from Texas before 1860.

Texas pecans are the only commercially grown nut in Texas, and are acclaimed as the biggest and the best in the world because the trees grow to the optimum diameter of 6 feet and a height of 130 feet. This is largely a result of the conducive environment it provides for pecan production: a nurturing sandy-loam soil and a suitable climate.

Initially, the value of the pecan nut was not recognized, as many pecan trees were cut and replaced with cotton, and the wood was used for making wagon parts, firewood, and farm implements. Eventually, the economic value of pecan was recognized, and pecan became one of the prominent cash crops in the state.

To promote the significance of the pecan in Texas, the Thirty-Sixth Legislature declared pecan the State Tree in 1919. Also, in 2001, the pecan was declared the state’s official ‘Health Nut,’ and in 2013, pecan pie was made the state’s Official Pie.

Success Record and Pecan Varieties

Texas recorded a successful production through most part of the 20th century as it topped the nation’s list of pecan producers. The 1943 census estimated that there were 3.2 million pecan trees in Texas and it produced 30 percent of the nation’s crop during these years.

The state’s pecan industry continued to grow during the 1960s due to the adoption of new technologies, such as: improved pecan varieties, irrigation, and the development of mechanic harvesters – compared to the preceding hand picking and manual shelling methods. 

Pecan varieties cultivated in Texas include: Desirable, Western, Choctaw, Pawnee, Wichita, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Sioux, Caddo, and Burkett – most of which are named after a native tribe. This naming is in commemoration of the immense impact of the Native Americans on the pecan. For example, providing the pecan with its name: the name “pecan” is derived from the Native American (Algonquin) word “pacane” that described “nuts requiring a stone to crack.”

Current Scope of Pecan Production in Texas

green pecan tree and nutIn 2020, Texas produced 45.4 million pounds of in-shell pecans on a total bearing acreage of 115,000 acres – placing it third on the list. Compared to New Mexico’s (second) pecan production of 77 million pounds on a bearing acreage of 45,000 and Georgia’s 142 million pounds on a bearing acreage of 129,000 acres, this gives an indication of a relatively low yield in Texas’ pecan production. However, this situation provides an opportunity to ask some critical questions: Could this low yield recorded by Texas signify a trade-off for quality? Do Texas pecan growers aim to produce pecans more sustainably?

Although production might seem discouraging in terms of quantity, I’d like to offer you another perspective: quality. Have you ever been in a purchase situation where you’re to choose between quality and quantity? Yes, I believe that your decision will depend on the kind of situation. However, as far as pecan production and consumption is concerned, quality is paramount.

Quality pecans ensure that consumers are having a full experience of this nutrient-dense and delicious nut, enjoying every bit of the benefits it provides. Remember, food quality has a lot to do with quality of health, and pecans are no exception. It’s not surprising that Texas pecans are acclaimed as the best in the world, and San Saba being recognized as the “Pecan Capital of the World.” 

Maintaining Quality Pecan Production

quality pecan nutmeat

In a bid to consistently produce quality pecans while ensuring sustainability, a handful of Texan pecan growers are involved in sustainable practices. A notable grower is Rio Grande Organics (RGO), an organic pecan grower in Houston, Texas. Since its establishment in 2001, and the opening of its doors to the public in 2003, it has grown into the largest organic pecan grower in North America.

With about 33,000 healthy and mature pecan trees which are managed with nature and the adoption of organic practices that ensure responsible use of natural resources, they’ve been successful in consistently producing quality pecans whilst conserving the environment. To further guarantee their organic practices in pecan production, they also work with a third-party certifying agency to verify that their materials and methods meet the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards.

Despite the fact that Texas’ pecan production has over the years experienced some technological achievements, such as: improved varieties, irrigation, and mechanical harvester, yet, there are still some critical approaches to sustain pecan production in Texas. 

Bringing Back the Native Pecans

Two varieties of pecan are produced in America: native or seedling varieties and improved varieties. While native varieties develop under natural conditions, seedling varieties are produced from seeds. Improved pecans are varieties that have been genetically developed through breeding and grafting techniques to produce more nuts, and with greater percentages of nutmeat – the edible part of the nut.

According to Monte Nesbitt, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension horticulturist, “The highest production year recorded for the state was 1979, when Texas’ pecan harvest totaled 91 million pounds. Native pecan production alone amounted to 70 million pounds.”

Nesbitt said Texas shifted in the 1980s from an industry dominated by native trees to one that began to be defined more by its improved varieties grown in planted orchards. “With a stable and steadily growing improved pecan industry in place, if interest in natives were to be rekindled, Texas could reach that 100-million-pound mark, if not more.”

Although native pecans are smaller in size compared to the improved varieties, they are more resistant to common diseases, such as Pecan Scab, and they require less input. Besides, they are more tasty and are full of flavor, which is why they are an excellent choice for pecan pies or pecan candies.

Currently, improved varieties produced 36.3 million pounds of in-shell pecans, while native and seedling varieties produced 9.1 million pounds (NASS, 2021).

Improving Soil Health Towards Enhancing Productivity

pecan on the soil

For centuries, pecan production has thrived in Texas’ nurturing sandy-loam soils and the “perfect” climate it provides. However, conventional agricultural practices subtly reduce soil quality, which affects productivity in the long run.

Although the alternate bearing characteristic of the pecan tree is internally regulated by the plant, it can also be triggered by poor management practices, which often deplete the tree’s energy reserves required for adequate growth. Besides adequate sunlight, the soil also plays a major role in ensuring optimum production by consistently supplying the necessary nutrients. Hence, the criticality of soil health. 

According to the New Mexico State University, pecan trees perform best in deep, well-drained, sandy soils including loamy sand, sandy loam, and silt loam. The more the soil deviates from these ideal textures and profiles, the more tree performance declines. Tree performance depends on the soil. This strong dependence is undoubtedly related to the nature of pecan trees, which are susceptible to water stress, salt stress, waterlogging, poor aeration, and hard soil. The soil’s physical characteristics should allow the plant to get enough air, water, and nutrients, thus, creating good conditions for root growth.

Rio Grande Organics gives a clearer perspective: “One system (of pecan production) reduces nutrients and organic content from the soil while it requires ever increasing input to produce crops and prevent disease. However, the other builds and replenishes the soil while producing healthy, delicious foods, and sustains productivity for generations to come. We choose to be organic farmers and we invite you to join us in promoting a healthier, more viable future for all!”

Penn State Extension provides information on the steps to ensuring soil health:

  • Reduce inversion tillage and soil traffic
  • Increase organic matter inputs
  • Use cover crops
  • Reduce pesticide use and provide habitat for beneficial organisms
  • Rotate crops
  • Manage nutrients

 

Besides commemorating pecans in America, National Pecan Day also doubles as a clarion call for Texas growers to rethink pecan production. This calls for a collaborative effort among stakeholders – producers, government, researchers, and consumers. As a consumer, you can try out our pecan pie recipe or go support your local pecan producer by paying a courtesy visit and having a hands-on experience of their operations. 

You can find pecan producers in your area here.

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