By Sarah Christine Bolton
It is finally a cooler day when I visit the 50-year-old Delta Pecan orchard in early November. A good-two hour drive from Memphis, the orchard is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta near Tutwiler, a tiny town surrounded by acres of cotton.
Owner Suzanne Powers, her hair whisked back in a hair net, her makeup perfect, walks out to greet me. “Welcome,” she says, leading the way into the open air barn. Pallets and pallets filled with sacks of pecans crowd along the edges, while a large machine at the back pulls my focus forward. In the chilly shadows of the barn, she explains how the pecan process begins. After the pecans are harvested, they are brought here, where a conveyor belt pulls them into the sorter. The pecans are sorted into four different sizes and put into bags, which are either put in the freezer for long-term storage, or placed on the pallets to use soon.
Suzanne and her husband Mike purchased the 200-acre orchard in 1997, after they had supposedly retired. “Our kids thought we were crazy,” Suzanne laughs. “But now they’ve come around, because they see how well we are doing.”
We walk into the processing and packaging area, where the air is warm and sweet with the smell of sugar, roasting pecans, and spices. Suzanne walks me through the various stages of pecan production. “We bring 2,000 pounds of pecans into the processing area every day,” she says. Here, the pecans are shelled, roasted, cooled, and either made into pralines or packaged to sell as whole nuts. We weave past counters filled with holiday gift bags and tubs of pralines. Suzanne makes all the pralines and turtles herself, in addition to processing orders and overseeing the shelling and roasting of the pecans.
Several employees are packaging pralines or sorting pecans on the small conveyer belt. Even in the cramped space of the processing plant, everything flows with efficiency.
Suzanne drives me out to the back section of the orchard, where the trees are more than 30 years old. “What kind of pecan trees are these?” I ask, bending down to snap a picture of a pecan nestled in the leaves. “Desirable,” Suzanne answers. “Desirable, as in you desire them?” I ask. She nods (even though Desirable is actually a variety of pecan) and cracks open a fresh pecan. The shell is dark brown and when I taste the nut, it is very creamy. She tells me that they grow five varieties of pecans on more than 2,000 trees.
Several gangly dogs call the orchard their home. One named Pearl is energetic, her teenage dog body still finding its grace. She runs ahead of us as we cross the bayou on the pickup truck. Later, she’ll swim back across the bayou, running and shaking off the water as she finds us again in the orchard. Several of the others follow us when we get out of the pickup and walk to find Mike, Suzanne’s husband.
Suzanne pauses in the middle of the orchard, deep in thought. She sighs. “I used to love to walk through the orchard,” she says. “I just don’t have the time anymore.” She spends a fair amount of her time in the kitchen these days, whipping up her extremely popular and delicious pralines—their best-selling item. Sometimes Mike will help her in the kitchen, if he gets done harvesting early.
We step around the trees, trying to avoid the pecans littering the ground, to where Mike is shaking the trees. When I first hear Suzanne say “shaking the trees,” I didn’t take it literally. That is, until I watch him drive the shaker up to a pecan tree. On the front of the machine is a large claw which grasps the trunk of the tree and literally shakes it. We are standing a good distance away from the tree and yet I feel the root system of the tree reverberating in the ground beneath me. It is an amazing experience, watching the tree shimmer and spew pecans.
After Mike finishes shaking all the trees, the rest of the orchard crew blows the nuts away from each tree, so they can be gathered. The pecans are put into a trailer, and pulled over to the processing building. The whole shaking and gathering process will be repeated on one tree several times throughout the harvesting season.
Mike gets off the tractor and pushes back his hat, his hands dyed black from handling the pecans. “We’ve had a pretty good harvest so far this year,” he says. “The nice cool, dry weather we’ve been having is perfect for harvesting.” November is the peak harvesting season, and they shake the trees until the first freeze. I’m amazed to hear that they will be shelling pecans well in to March, sometimes up to 100,000 pounds per year. Any pecans that aren’t sold or made into products right away are stored in the freezer.
Recently, Suzanne had the idea for local bayou artist Cristen Craven Barnard to create some art for the tins of pecans shipped out to customers. “I was thinking something that had to do with the blues,” Suzanne says. “Everyone thought I was crazy, but I just kept saying ‘trust me.’ It turned out to be the hottest thing we’ve ever done.” On a side counter in their dining room, Suzanne shows off originals. “I’ll frame them someday,” she muses. Just behind her, I notice a photograph. I move in for a closer look. It’s Suzanne and Mike. He’s on the tractor. She’s standing beside it. They are smiling, younger, hopeful, but somehow, not so different from today.
Suzanne fills up a bag of pralines for my trip home. It isn’t long before I untwist the plastic wrap and pop one into my mouth. One is enough, a tiny burst of crunchy, sweet and creamy. The two hour drive ahead suddenly gets a lot easier.
Information about Delta Pecan and all of their products—including some great recipes is online at deltapecan.com. You’ll find their pralines and flavored pecans (perfect for salads and snacking) locally at:
Miss Cordelia’s Grocery 737 Harbor Bend Rd., 901-526-4772
LeFleur (in Laurelwood) 4538 Poplar Ave., 901-683-4313
Gestures 523 S Main, 901-525-4438
St. Francis Hospital Gift Shop 5959 Park Ave.
Delta Pecans can also be found at several farmers’ markets throughout the area including the Memphis Farmers’ Market downtown (May – October) as well as in Tupelo and Jackson, MS.
The Scoop on Pecans
The most prolific of the North American native nuts, pecans are a valuable product across the entire mid-south. Approximately 250-million pounds of pecans were harvested in 2007 with Texas and Georgia leading the way in production by individual states. The average retail price we found for shelled pecans in the Memphis area is $6.50 for fancy halves—the kind used in creamy pralines, and about $6.00 for pieces—perfect for pies. The price of pecans is mainly influenced by production which is heavily influenced by the weather. Large storms and hurricanes can have a dramatic effect on pecan yield.
Pecans are, by their nature, highly resistant to most pests and fungal diseases. As a result, most orchards use few, if any, chemical pesticides or fungicides in production. The spacing and design of pecan orchards also allows growers to avoid many ‘off-farm inputs’ that are common to other tree-based products.
Pecans are highly nutritious and loaded with anti-oxidants and plant sterols which have been shown to lower ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. They are also full of nutritional value— more than 19 vitamins and minerals and are low in saturated fats, as nuts go.
While many growers are also ‘shellers’—meaning they also sell shelled pecans in bulk and retail packages, not as many are value-added processors like Delta Pecan. Value-added processing— making pecans into candies like pralines for example, certainly adds costs to any operation but the additional income from these products offsets production losses in other areas and adds to a healthier bottom-line for the grower/sheller.
Like the successful California Almond promotional campaign, the National Pecan Shellers Association has set up a website with nutritional information, recipes, facts and information about events online. Visit them at ilovepecans.org.
Source: NPSA website with contribution from Edible Memphis
Sarah Christine Bolton is a self-diagnosed coffee-aholic who also loves to play tennis, cook strange foods and play gin rummy with her husband. She is originally from California and Montana and misses both the ocean and the mountains.