One of the first things you’ll notice about Austin is the pecans littering the sidewalks. When I first moved here, I foolishly gathered them while passerby looked at me like I was nuts (ha ha). Now I just take them for granted– almost every yard in town has a pecan tree. They’re our version of autumnal red leaves in New England. And those sneaky squirrels usually get them before I do.
There are numerous pecan orchards all across the state. Back in October, I visited Royalty Pecan Farms in Caldwell, Texas. It lies in the Brazos River Bottom of Central Texas, which is traditionally cotton country. “River bottom soil is some of the most fertile in the world,” explained Rebekah Stallsworth, the daughter of orchard manager Andy Sherrod. She was raised on the property, home schooled there, and has worked in the orchard in almost every capacity. She’s truly a pecan expert.
As soon as we hopped into her SUV, we heard the squawking of a bird repel system masquerading as a hawk. “Crows are quite detrimental,” Rebekah said, “they can carry pecans off by the thousands of pounds per day.” Surprisingly, squirrels don’t cause too much trouble at the orchard– the real threats are deer and the pecan nut case bearer, a worm that lays eggs in the trees’ flowers and consumes pecans from inside the shell.
By the way, did you even know pecan trees had flowers? “They do, but you would never know it.” Rebekah told us. As wind pollinated nuts, two or more trees of different cultivars must be present to pollinate each other. To accomplish this, they plant eight rows of dominant varieties, then two rows of complimentary varieties. We drove deep into the orchard, looking down the seemingly endless rows of pecan trees with feathery green leaves.
Pecans are only harvested October through December, but caring for an orchard is a year round job. The trees need plenty of water, well over a thousand gallons per tree. They use a buried drip system for irrigation, located eight inches below the surface that secretes water efficiently so that every drop is used.
Apparently they can’t pick all these pecans by hand like I had naively believed. Harvesting requires lots of heavy duty equipment. In the fall, a shaker sends vibrations through the trunk of the tree, forcing the ripe pecans out. Next, a blower pushes the pecans and debris like twigs and leaves into the next rows. Eventually, it’s all consolidated into two wind rows. Then a leaf vacuum comes through, and the harvester picks out the pecans. The nuts are then pushed through this massive green apparatus, or crank. It magically selects the good pecans based on weight!
The machine must be adjusted to reflect the different weights of different pecan varieties. Although there are hundreds of pecan cultivars, Royalty sticks to six: Choctaw, Cheyenne, Desirable, Gracross, Wichita, and Pawnee. all of them tend to be harder varieties, not the paper shell pecans that I used to see in Louisiana and Mississippi during my New Orleans days.
Pecan enthusiasts debate the virtues of each cultivar, but they all taste buttery and sweet to me. Harvest season was just starting in October, so I could try only the Choctaws. You can taste the different varieties side by side during the winter, but I’m sure the trees look sad and bare. Mid to late March is Rebekah’s favorite part of the month because the trees are “bright vibrant green, like the whole world is coming alive.”