Many folks may not give pecans a whole lot of thought, except around the holiday season, when Tarheel bakers make pecan pies, cakes and all sorts of desserts and dips with the brown-hulled nuts.
While many farm families may have had a pecan tree or two on the farm to supply the ingredients for those goodies, you’d be hard pressed to find a pecan farm.
Bill Bunn, on the other hand, takes pecans very seriously. The owner of Lakeview Pecans in Bailey, N.C., he may know as much about pecans and the pecan business as anyone in the country — and he learned it the old-fashioned way.
“I started in the early 1980s with my late brother, and we bit off a little piece at the time,” Bunn says. “We started with nine trees ... and eight of them died. Back then, no one knew anything about growing pecan trees, selecting varieties, any of that. I made a lot of trips to [larger-producing states] Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.”
Of the 15 pecan-producing states, North Carolina ranks about in the middle at about 2 million pounds per year. Industry leaders such as Georgia and Texas fall into the 75 million- to 90 million-pound range.
• With 2 million pounds of pecans annually, N.C. ranks in middle in national production.
• Lakeview Pecans boasts 250 producing trees and 10,000 nursery stock trees.
• Pecans require same treatment as most crops: nitrogen and a spraying schedule.
Bunn’s knowledge has grown over the years, and he’s been a big promoter of the business, serving several years — including the current one — as president of the North Carolina Pecan Growers Association. The group has grown to around 100 active members. He also served in that capacity for the southeastern U.S. association.
“Our total impact is very small, and there never will be an impact on the national level,” Bunn says. “[Part of that] is the ‘now’ crop mentality, that of ‘harvest what you plant in 180 days and then go hunting.’ Landowners don’t see waiting 10 years for income. Ten years waiting to get a return is discouraging. But from 10 years to 100 years, pecan trees can provide a steady income.”
Lakeview is the old family homeplace, covering about 10 acres. Bunn has about 250 bearing trees and more than 10,000 pecan trees in the farm’s nursery stock. He also has a 2-acre test plot that has about 60 total trees in 21 varieties. North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture have programs and field days on the farm on a regular basis, drawing participants not only from North Carolina, but also from other states.
There are hundreds of varieties of pecans, with about 30 to 40 species doing well in this state.
“Some varieties will have pecans in three years, but it is eight to 10 years before there is a significant amount with most types,” Bunn says. “They start to hit their prime at about 20 years. After eight to 10 years, the yield is substantial enough to pay their way.
“It’s an expensive crop to grow, and it has to be treated just like any commercial crop. You put about 150 pounds of nitrogen to the acre, and spray the trees about six to eight times a year.”
And, just like any commercial crop, production varies. 2009 was very light in production but extremely high in quality of nuts, while 2008 was a heavy production year with poor overall quality, the grower says.
The biggest threat to pecans is a disease known as “scab,” which causes the trees to dry up. The main predator is the pecan weevil, which makes a small round hole in the shell that many folks mistake for a bird peck.
“The weevil is a troublesome pest, but with good management you can keep it under control,” he says.
Of the varieties, the Stuart is probably the most common in North Carolina, having first been grafted in 1846.
“The Stuart might not be the very best in fill-out, but it can be counted on year after year to have something. It is very dependable and one of the best for taste,” Bunn says. “When I do orchard design, I do about 10% in Stuart.”
Bunn also favors the early-maturing Pawnee; Sumner, which produces an excellent pecan and processes well; the Cape Fear, a higher oil-content nut; Nacono, an elongated nut more resistant to scab; and the Caddo.
His nursery operation is also a big part of the business. He has worked with several Texas breeders to develop new varieties, and in 2009 was working with some varieties that had only been made available to six nurseries nationwide.
The germination and grafting of the trees is a painstakingly long process. “It takes four years to grow a tree from a seed in a pot, or two years to do a grafting,” Bunn says. “We have 2,000 to 3,000 ready for market every year, which we ship all over the country. I don’t want to be any bigger.”
Bunn sells plants as large as 7 gallons. Three- to 5-foot-minimum pecan trees start at $25. Lakeview Pecans has added apple and peach tree varieties, and Web site response has been strong. But the bread and butter is still shelled pecans.
Lakeview Pecans harvests as well as cracks and shells mechanically, but the nuts still have to be picked out by hand. In the farm’s small processing plant, they are packed and shipped as well as frozen for storage.
“They will never be as good as they are when they fall from the tree, but they have a long shelf life if you freeze them — they will last a year.”
About half of the production goes to wholesalers, while grocers, restaurants and fundraisers take up the rest. Bunn says repeat business is the key.
“They usually come back, and that’s partly because we throw a lot of pecans away,” he says. “We throw away anything that is not up to our standard.”
That standard doesn’t seem likely to change.
“It’s a passion for me,” Bunn says. “I want to give every tree attention. I don’t want to be the biggest, but I want to be the best.”
Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.