Cracking open markets for Missouri pecans

The Show-Me State’s sweet, native nuts have much to offer—no matter how you say it.

Is it “PEE-can” or “pi-KHAN?” “Pi-CAN” or “PEE-khan?” The way you say “pecan” is usually determined by—well—various reasons. Sociolinguists think maybe it is a North-South or rural-urban difference. Others think it depends on dialect, while many believe it is the context of how the word itself is used.

No matter how you pronounce it, the pecan is a true American nut with a great history and so much to offer.

“In a native pecan grove, the trees are wild and were planted by the squirrels and the Native Americans,” said Cheyenne Miller Deitch of Miller Pecan Farms in De Witt, Mo. “Our native pecan is pretty much the same as it was hundreds of years ago and has the same sweet natural flavor. I think that is pretty amazing!”

The word pecan is derived from the original Algonquin tribe’s word “pacane” which meant, “nuts requiring a stone to crack.” Because of its thin shell and large kernel, the Native Americans used these nuts as a food source and were the first to cultivate and trade them.

The pecan is the only major tree nut indigenous to North America. Today, there are more than 1,000 varieties, many named after Native American tribes, such as the Pawnee, Osage, Kanza and Lakota. More than 75% of U.S. pecans are grown in Georgia, Texas and New Mexico, but pecan trees also thrive across Missouri.

In 1972, Brunswick was crowned the Pecan Capital of Missouri, but there are other hubs of pecan activity in the state—not only Chariton County but also the area encompassing Bates and Vernon counties in west-central Missouri. The state’s native species, Carya illinoinensis, originally only grew in southeast Missouri but was spread north and west by Native Americans. It now grows naturally throughout most of the Show-Me State with more than 11,000 acres of native or cultivated pecan trees, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

Missouri growers benefit from those wild native pecan trees clustered together in groves or carefully planted in orchards with seedlings of different varieties. The pecans they harvest are smaller than the southern pecan, lighter in color and sweeter due to the high oil content.

Grafted Native Pecans
Precisely planted pecan trees line a portion of Highway 24 leading to Shepherd Farms in Clifton Hill, Mo.
“The ones on a highway, they’re just for looks,” said Dan Shepherd, who owns and operates the farm with his wife, Jan. “We don’t harvest them, and the state doesn’t bother them. They are there to look beautiful.”
Their farm has evolved through the years—eastern gamagrass seed, row crops, cattle, bison—but pecan trees have always been a constant.

“When I was about 12 years old, my dad bought 20 acres right down here on the river (East Fork Little Chariton) because he wanted to plant pecan trees,” Shepherd said. “I remember climbing up on the levee and looking to the north over at this place. I said to my dad, ‘You ought to buy that place. You could plant a lot of pecans out there.’”

A few years later, the 1,700-acre farm that Shepherd had pointed out was for sale, and his father, Jerrell, purchased it. The planting of native pecan trees began with 900 trees on 15 acres. At 14, Shepherd helped but said they really didn’t know what they were doing.

Shepherd started managing the farm in 1978 as his father continued with his career in radio. “My dad loved the farming business and he had a lot of input on the pecan trees and other operations,” said Shepherd. His father passed away in 1998 and never was able to see the full success of his dream.

Today, Shepherd estimates that he has about 5,000 pecan trees on about 300 acres of the now 4,000-acre farm. The orchards are beautifully designed and carefully manicured throughout the year. Each pecan variety is tagged and has its own plot.

“It took close to 20 years before we had a viable nut harvest,” said Shepherd. “I wish Dad could see the orchards now.”

The reward of a new pecan farm, like a good wine, takes time. Shepherd and his father learned how to graft native root stock and known varieties for better results. With grafted pecan trees, the nuts are larger than those from ungrafted native trees, and harvests can be sooner in the tree’s life and more consistent. The yields also tend to be higher per acre than yields from wild pecan trees. With grafting, Shepherd explained, growers are also looking for varieties that are less susceptible to disease, such as pecan scab.

Like the fruit of all other members of the hickory genus, the pecan is not truly a nut. It is technically a drupe, a fruit with a single stone or pit, surrounded by a husk. The pecan tree’s growing season begins in the spring with flowers in April and May. The fruit appears in September and October in clusters of three to 10 with a thin, reddish-brown husk that splits along four ridges during maturity to expose the nut. The nut has a thin, light brown shell that is cylindrical and pointed at the tip.

When the pecans reach maturity and the husks start splitting open in late October or early November, they’re ready for harvest. At Shepherd Farms, the orchard floor is mowed throughout the season to keep the weeds and grass at a minimum. The harvest party begins with a mechanical tree shaker, which grabs each side of a trunk with rubber clamps and shakes the trees to drop the nuts to the ground. The ground begins to vibrate like a mini earthquake as the nuts, leaves and branches rain down.

A pecan harvest implement is attached to a tractor and driven around the tree to collect nuts from the orchard floor. The nuts are deposited into a hopper as the machine spits out the debris from behind. Once at a processing facility, the pecans are cleaned, inspected and dried. They are sorted and sized for cracking and shelling, then packaged for sale.

This year has been difficult for Missouri pecan growers, Shepherd said. The lack of rain and an early frost will cut into the 2022 pecan yield. A saving grace for growers is that the pecan, shelled or not, can be stored in a freezer at 0 degrees and stay fresh for up to five years.

Shepherd does his own harvesting and has a state-of-the-art facility onsite to process, bag and store pecans. He also processes pecans for other growers. Typically, Shepherd Farms harvests about 180,000 pounds of pecans a year, and Jan operates a retail store that is open October through December.

“Our nuts are sourced by national ingredient manufacturers, exported internationally and sold in local retail shops as well as our own,” Shepherd said.
After spending most of his life dedicated to the farm, Shepherd said he is satisfied to see his father’s dream of raising pecans become a reality.

“It was a big upfront investment before we were seeing a good return,” Shepherd said. “The nice thing about these trees is that they could produce for other 80 years. We now just prune and make some adjustments to the orchard when needed.”

Native Pecans
In contrast to the cultivated, grafted orchards at Shepherd Farms, native pecan groves are the center of business for Miller Pecan Farms in De Witt, located along the Grand River about 45 minutes west on Highway 24. Pecan trees like to grow in moist, well-drained soil, heavy with humus, so native pecans are often found thriving in river bottoms.

Cheyenne Miller Deitch, who now manages the family business, said that the farm only has about 12 grafted trees. The rest are wild. Overall, a good harvest for the farm is about 10,000 pounds of pecans.

“Our native pecan is sweeter and smaller because they have a higher oil content. And since they are native to Missouri, we don’t have to spray them. They are all-natural,” Deitch said. “We mow around the trees and then harvest the pecans. We just let nature take its course.”

After a short stint as a teacher, Deitch began managing the farm six years ago. The business was established by her grandparents, Dean and Ruth Miller, in 1972 with one pecan cracker and about 20 trees.

“They were farmers and initially wanted to teach their kids how to make money on the side,” Deitch said. “They cracked their own pecans and sold a few, and they would crack some for neighbors for 5 cents a pound.”

Once the word was out, more and more people asked the Millers to crack pecans.

“My grandpa went around to the other pecan producers in Missouri and asked if anyone wanted to sell their pecan crackers,” Deitch said. “He came upon a family who wanted to sell out completely, so he bought all their equipment as well as their grove. That’s kind of how we got started.”

Dean, a seed salesman, had built a shed for his seed products and farm equipment. Ruth asked if she could have a little corner to put in a few candies and canned items.

“My grandpa was the sweetest man, so he said yes,” Deitch said.

The side business turned into a full-blown pecan operation with more cracking machines, washing stations and a drying room. There wasn’t much room left for the seed business or farm equipment. Ruth’s venture of creating candies and pralines developed into the family store, The Squirrel’s Nest.

“Now, here we are 50 years later, with three generations in the business and the fourth generation who comes with me on the weekends,” laughed Deitch. “My two girls love spending time here, and every now and then, you get Grandma, Mrs. Miller, out here checking on me. My heart is here. This is what I have always wanted to do my whole life.”

Dean Miller passed away on Christmas morning in 2020, but Ruth is proud to see her family carrying on his legacy. “I have enjoyed working with my children to develop good work ethics and fostering an understanding for the value of a dollar in them,” she said. “I have loved watching our business grow and develop into what it is today. Working with family has helped us to ensure quality and develop a sense of pride in our accomplishments together. We are certainly nutty about it!”

Organic Native Pecans
Along with Chariton County, west-central Missouri is also known for native pecan production. In Nevada, Mo., just off Interstate 49, the Missouri Northern Pecan Growers (MNPG) facility processes and stores pecans and offers a variety of products, including Missouri and American native pecans and pecan oil.

“We started the business in 2000 with seven growers,” said Joe Wilson, MNPG co-owner. “At the time, we were gathering and selling pecans to Texas and Georgia but not getting a good price because our natives were smaller. Yet, everyone admitted that our pecans had a very good flavor. So, we decided to capitalize on our great-tasting native Missouri pecans.”
To capture another segment of the market, MNPG started offering 100% certified organic pecans in 2003.

“Our organic certification ensures the public of our due diligence in offering a product that is not only tasty, but also is not harming the environment,” said Wilson. “To be certified organic is an extensive process.”

With a strong international export business, the growers took the organic certification process even further by getting authorized to sell to South Korea, which does not recognize the U.S. certification.

“A company in South Korea that we were connected with sent a certifier to the United States to come to little Nevada, Mo.,” Wilson explained. “We took this young lady out to our groves, and she inspected them and reviewed our records here at the plant. We are now certified to sell organic pecans in South Korea, and, as far as I know, we’re the only company in the United States that can do that.”

“It’s just kind of fulfilling to think that these little nuts we raised right here in Vernon County are being eaten all over the world,” he added.
MNPG works with about 60 growers in the region and typically processes about 1 million pounds of native Missouri pecans each year.

“We began doing all our own processing and purchased more equipment, and we can easily shell 2 million pounds of pecans a year,” Wilson said. “Two years ago, we built a 5,000-square-foot freezer so we can freeze our pecans and also offer custom freezer space to the community.”

Ben Bennett and his wife, Amanda, are also co-owners of MNPG, along with her two brothers. The siblings’ father, Wayne Harth, who passed away two years ago, was one of the original founders. Bennett enjoys the harvest and telling people about Missouri native pecans.

“When people say they don’t like pecans, it’s usually because they only get the brown, dried-out pecans from the grocery store. Who knows how long they have been on the shelf?” Bennett said. “The fresher they are, the better they are.”

One new venture for MNPG is pecan oil, which has been shown to have health benefits, Bennett noted. He shared a story of a customer who claimed he lowered his cholesterol by 60 to 80 points by using pecan oil on his popcorn rather than butter. Pecan oil is rich in monounsaturated fats and low in saturated fats, with one-third less saturated fat than olive oil and two-thirds less than butter.

“We make our own pecan oil, and it’s all cold-pressed, not refined,” Bennett said. “It has a high smoke point of 470 degrees and a nice light, nutty flavor.”
Pecans are not only good for our bodies but also good for the land, Wilson added.

“Our wild pecan trees are unaltered by man, planted by nature and the squirrels,” he said. “These pecan trees grow in the environmentally sensitive floodplains, naturally protecting the land that runs along rivers, creeks, estuaries, lakes and wetlands. This ecosystem provides habitat and supports diverse communities of plants and animals. Our farmers are proud to nurture and harvest this sustainable crop.”

For more information about the pecan farms featured, visit online at shepherdfarms.com; millerpecanfarms.com; and mopecans.com.

Click HERE to read more in this Dec/Jan2023 issue of Today’s Farmer

CLICK HERE to read this article as printed in the flip book of this magazine issue.
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