Pecan pie, trail mix, cookies, desserts of all types. The pecan is a delightfully rich, buttery little treat that finds its way into hundreds of different foods that we eagerly eat up. But the life cycle of a pecan begins far before it ends up in that pie topping. The life of a pecan follows a winding trail from pollination to harvest, harvest to wholesale pecans in fancy halves, large, extra large pieces or other varieties.
It all starts… with a seed.
Pecan Tree – Seed to Nut
That title may be a little disingenuous after all a pecan nut is a pecan seed. So, to say growth from ‘seed to nut’ is essentially saying the same thing, but for this purpose, it is important to distinguish them slightly.
A pecan tree can be established in about 4 different ways. You can plant seedlings and onto them, graft the specifically desired cultivar. Plant a tree already grafted with the wanted cultivar or transplant existing trees or seedlings and top work for the cultivar. The other method, the one we are focusing on here for simplicity sake (after all, as consumers you do not need to know exactly how top work is done to change the harvest) is starting with seed.
The seed for the tree should be collected in the fall. The pecan should be filled and free of insects. The best pecan trees come from northern climes, where the trees will be better adapted for colder weather. When planted further south, these variants of the trees become more durable. These seeds will grow into seedlings, and when large enough, will be able to be grafted with the branch of the pecan variant that farmers wish to grow. This ensures the tree will begin to produce the exact kind of nut desired!
Pecans, like other fruits, are genetically unique from the seed that they grew from. While the seed that grew the tree may be a Stuart or a Desirable, they may not grow just so. That is why pecan farmers will graft their desired kind of pecan branch onto those seedlings, to ensure that they are getting the right nut for harvest.
These seedlings will need several years before they are able to produce a sizable enough harvest. Roughly 5 to 7 years. Once the tree is ready to bear pecans, it starts, as you might imagine – in the Spring. In springtime, pecan trees flower. The tree produces both male and female flowers. While the male flowers will produce pollen, the female flowers become pollinated and then they transform into the pecans themselves!
The pollinated female flowers will form a green, protective husk, as the insides begin to mature into the pecan. Come autumn, the husk goes brown and pulls away – the mature pecan nut is here!
Pecans Ready to Harvest
In the natural world, before pecan trees were farmed commercially, the pecan nut would simply fall off the tree and be collected and eaten. Pecan farmers have no need to wait around for that to happen! They’ll take a machine that grips the tree and shakes the pecans loose from their branches. These pecans will then be let to lay in the orchard for a couple of days to begin the drying process.
After the pecan nuts have had some time to dry, the farmers will go back through the orchard, moving the pecans into rows to facilitate easier gathering. Farmers will then drive over these rows with specialized harvesting equipment that lifts the pecans (and some extra foliage) from the orchard floor.
Pecans are then taken to a sorting facility. Here, electric sorters will shake loose and separate the good harvest from the sticks, twigs, leaves, and other debris that was pulled up with them. The pecans are sorted by size and weight and continue their way through the facility on the conveyor belts, shell still intact. The good harvest is then made ready for shipping. At some facilities, this means going through an alcohol float.
Haven’t seen mention of the alcohol float in other pecan wholesalers? That’s not too surprising as it is hardly the most appealing step in the process, but be sure, most are doing it. The alcohol float ensures that there are no pecan weevils or other parasites in the pecan, but this process also removes so much of the natural flavors from the pecans!
Here at SNRA however, we have revolutionized this process, ensuring there are no contaminants, insect or otherwise through other processes that keep the natural flavor of the pecans.
But wait – are those shells are still there?
While some buyers want their pecans shell intact, here at SNRA we specifically cater for those who want to be a step ahead. For them, that means not wanting to spend the time, the resources, or the capital to have a shelling process on hand. Sure, you crack a few pecans with your hand, but on the industrial-sized quantities that we and our customers handle on a daily basis? That’s simply not realistic.
And so, the next step for many of those healthy pecans is through the shelling process.
The nutmeat of a pecan, the actual edible core of the nut, is made up of two halves. That’s two whole pieces of a pecan inside each shell. The goal of the shelling process it to crack the hard outer layer, and separate it from the soft, delicious food within.
The pecans are taken, again by conveyor belt to the cracker. It uses a small bucket chain to carry the nuts, one by one through to the main chamber of the cracker. Here, a piston strikes the shell with just enough force to crack the shell cleanly. Imagine your workers cracking by hand? How many do you think they could do in a minute? Half dozen? A dozen? Not here, no sir. The cracker machine can crack 450 pecans in a minute!
In a pecan-perfect world, the nut would be shelled into the two halves perfectly every time, but of course, this world is not pecan-perfect. As such, during the shelling process, (and even during the harvesting process up to this point) a percentage of each pecan half may break apart into smaller pieces. These are just a byproduct of the process, they are not any less delicious or useful and so they too are sold wholesale to buyers who want finer pieces of pecans.
Tip: If you want a more economical purchase of wholesale pecans, look to buy about 70% halves and 30% pieces!
After going through the cracker machine, the pecan meat and shell continue along the conveyor belt, with the rest of the processing being dedicated to removing the bits of shell from the edible meat. It will go through various chambers and steps where the size of the pecans themselves can be sorted divided out into like categories: the fancy halves, extra-large, large, medium, small, and midget pieces are all these pecan sizes.
The final stage in our pecans process is packaging into 30lb. cases and being shipped to our customers. They receive their case, open them up for use and in their hand they have it. The pecan! And so, just like it began it ends, with a nut!
This process covers what most in the pecan business do. At SNRA we buy, shell, and sell, buying from the farmers directly, shelling right away and selling them to our customers immediately. Our shelling facility is second to none, as the safety and quality of our pecans are hugely important to us. Our pecans don’t sit around in a warehouse waiting for orders, thus ensuring that the quality is as high as possible for customers.
Pecans are truly a wonderful food, delicious and nutritious, with more antioxidants than the same size serving of blueberries! And to think, they once were used solely for hog feed! This is America’s nut, and we here at SNRA are proud to be working to bring pecans to every corner of the country, and to pecan aficionados worldwide.