Follow Your Nutty Heart
The freshest, tastiest pecans are found at the source, but local shops near the orchards are the next best thing.
Southerners and pecans go hand-in-hand, much like bacon and greens. Generations of farmers across the Southeast have planted pecan trees, the only native tree nut that grows naturally in North America. Discovered and named by Native Americans, the pecan tree became a source of food for tribes.
What may be less known is the effort behind the result. A pecan tree can take up to 10 years before it actually produces a crop. While annual crops like peanuts can start over each year, pecan growers invest decades – even generations.
With the succession of hurricanes within the last few years, the pecan industry has taken the brunt. Just like the resilient growers who began clearing the debris and planting new groves, loyal pecan lovers follow tradition when visiting a roadside store, pecan grove or retail store to buy gift tins, stock freezers or simply make a pie from fresh pecans.
Moreover, the pecan is enjoying a creative renaissance in the South as chefs and breweries take the humble nut to new heights. What about a pecan pie martini or a sweet potato cheesecake with pecans?
While roaming about this fall, stop at the cinder-block roadside stand or head to the newest urban eatery to get your pecan fix. The season only comes once a year, but the tradition lasts a lifetime, so here are a few ideas to get you started.
B&B Pecan Co.
Clarence and Sandra Bishop typify the nature of Southern pecan growers. More than 60 years ago, the young couple planted five acres so Sandra could stay home with their new daughter, Mona. Decades later, the Bishops are still selling pecans and giving tours to those who stop by.
“We are a small orchard with about 100 acres now,” says Mona Barfield, their daughter. Along with her brother, Doug Bishop, she helps keep the family business alive.
Barfield well remembers how hurricanes can affect groves.
“I remember I came home from college and my dad was so happy over the crop. It was a bumper crop and he said they had been waiting 10 years for it. On Sept. 12, 1979, Frederick hit and they lost the whole crop. At that point, they had to reinvent themselves.”
And so they did, focusing on a new retail shop where they could package candied pecans while the trees matured. Today, B&B sells several varieties of pecans including Desirable, Cape Fear, and Stuart at their retail shop located just outside of Fairhope on Highway 98. October to December is the busiest time of year as the Bishops also have a national gift business, selling tins to individuals and businesses.
“The trend is definitely candied pecans rather than just pecans,” says Barfield.
B&B has a pecan board that is 40-to-50 years old, which helps visitors understand all the varieties.
Her parents are still active in the business at ages 83 and 87. “Mom does the books and Dad loves to talk to customers and take them to the farm,” she says.
Ironically, Barfield says the two questions they get most often are, “Where is the old guy and is the dog still here? The dog, Annie, still graces the shop despite her advanced age.”
Indianola Pecan House
In the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the Timbs family has been buying and selling pecans for 30 years at the Indianola Pecan House, the state’s largest pecan retailer. Their retail shop features every pecan imaginable from salty-to-sweet, candied, praline, and even Jack Daniel’s pecans. The company has both online and retail shops. If your trip takes you farther south to Flowood or over to Tupelo, you can still find Indianola Pecan House retail products.
Retail pecan operations have dwindled as Mississippi’s pecan industry has changed over the last 50 years, largely due to hurricanes. Peaking in the 1960s at about 39 million pounds, three decades later only 1.5 million pounds were produced.
As a comparison, Georgia once produced 120 million pounds of pecans and projects half that amount in 2019, also due to hurricane damage.
Max Draughan, president of the Mississippi Pecan Growers Association for the last seven years and owner of Bass Pecan Nursery – the largest pecan tree nursery from Georgia to Texas – explains how nature has taken its toll.
“Starting with Hurricane Camille, then Fred, and Elena, we lost a lot of trees.” Combined with stagnant pricing, many established growers simply let mature groves languish or chose not to invest in new trees. Today, however, the pecan industry is on the upswing due to China’s entrance into the market and better prices.
Mississippi’s strength lies in the small, rather than large. Although the state doesn’t have one commercial sheller, there are many 5-to-10-acre growers, pecan accumulators (people who buy pecans from all kinds of sources), and one large retailer, Indianola Pecan House. Likewise, interest has grown.
“In 2012, we had 13 members. Today, we have more than 79 members,” says Draughan, who encourages Mississippians to seek out local pecans, noting fresh pecans far outrank their grocery store counterparts in quality and flavor. Because of local activity, it’s possible to find someone who cracks pecans or an accumulator who buys pecans. Or pick pecans up for later.
“Pecans freeze beautifully because they are mostly oil, not water. And you can also refreeze pecans without affecting the taste or quality,” adds Draughan.
To plan your pecan roadtrip, visit the newly redesigned mspecans.org site which lists pecan sources across Mississippi.
We’re Nuts/Ellis Bros. Pecans,
Travelers along Interstate 75 from Florida to Atlanta, can’t miss the “We’re Nuts,” billboards. It’s hard to resist stopping in the small town of Vienna – about half-way between the Florida state line and Atlanta – just to check out what makes these folks so nutty. Another family-owned operation, the farm boasts more than 2,500 acres of pecans with 20 different varieties. The newest nut variety coming to “We’re Nuts” is extra special. Known as the “Ellis” variety, it has recently received an official patent and is being propagated at select nurseries.
Visitors can try before they buy as samples of all the pecan varieties are placed throughout the retail store, which is located on a blacktop road that runs through the orchards just off the interstate. And anyone needing a snack for the rest of the trip might want to take one of the fresh pecan log rolls.
The farm also sells peaches from its own orchard. Elliot Ellis, who now runs the farm with his sons, recommends his mother Irene’s famous Pecan Brittle as a starting point, although their retail shop is filled with gourmet and gift items. And if you need a sweet boost for the rest of the drive, be sure to try to the fresh ice cream, especially the peach.
We’re Nuts also sells its pecan products online.
South Carolina Pecan Trail
Florence, South Carolina
If you’ve ever heard about needing a passport to cross the Mason-Dixon line, it might just be true. In this case, we’re talking about passports and pecans in the most interesting light. In Florence, South Carolina, Holly Baumier, executive director with the Florence Convention & Visitors Bureau recognized just how popular pecans were in town.
“She noticed that there were many locally-owned restaurants using pecans in unique ways,” says Ashley Hopwood, marketing communications manager with the CVB.
In 2016, the organization established the South Carolina Pecan Trail, which is a culinary trail entirely devoted to the pecan-aficionados. With more than 20 locations on the trail, visitors can enjoy a White Russian Pecan Pie at Julia Belle’s or sip a pecan pie martini. Young’s Plantations Pecans, another site on the trail, was once the largest pecan sheller in the U.S. with the farm dating back to the 1920s.
To participate in the Pecan Trail fun, pick up a passport at any participating business, collect stamps, and return to the friendly folks at the CVB. Besides enjoying a new pecan dish, visitors can also earn t-shirts, mini-pecan pies, and even a nutcracker.
One last piece of information may prove helpful on any nutty journey. Pee-can or pah-cahn? “They’re both right!” says Hopwood.