Have you ever wondered what it would take to grow a pecan orchard? Is it easy or hard? I recently took a drive over to Wilcox, Arizona to talk to Paul and Jackie Lee of Lee’s Pecans. Paul and Jackie have been growing pecans for almost 40 years and they shared the answers to those two questions and more. What they said led me to conclude that anyone can grow pecans if a few factors are in place.
Lee’s Pecans: An example of how it can be done
Paul and Jackie Lee have 220 trees on 8 acres. They aren’t a big commercial grower like some commercial growers who have over 6,000 trees. The Lee’s have 12 varieties of pecans and only use pesticides when absolutely necessary. They also farm in a conscious way, recycling the leaves and trimmings back into the soil.
Pecans are mature in 12 years and can live to be 100 years or more. You can get a jump-start if you get 3-year-old trees from a reliable nursery. They must be the variety that grows well in your area and grafted to hardy root stock. So, do your research! The trees will get nuts in about 7 years or when the trees are about 10 years old. So, as you can see, this is a long-term project.
If you just want a few trees for yourself or friends and family a few trees will suffice. Always get more than one variety. Pecan trees cross pollinate and having different varieties will make your trees stronger.
Fail to plan and you will be planning to fail.
This is good advice for almost anything you venture into. As for pecans: how much suitable land do you have? Although trees will grow anywhere it will be easier for you if your land is flat and has plenty of water. Pecans need about 100 gallons of water a day in growing season. Mature pecan trees grow to a height of 70-100 feet and a spread of 40-75′ feet at maturity.
One nice thing about nut trees is that they aren’t as demanding as fruit trees. You must harvest fruit when it is ready. Nuts drop and can be harvested when you are ready over a period of weeks.
Equipment will come in handy especially if you have more than a handful of trees. A shaker, sweeper, harvester and chipper are useful if you want to do less by hand. You will also be in better shape if you know something about fixing things. Equipment breaks down and tires go flat!
What pests and diseases are pecan prone to?
By and large, pecans are pretty tough, but they can be attacked by aphids and crows. Aphids are controlled by insecticide. Crows are controlled by putting out emitters of the cry of a distressed crow and predator. If you take care of your land and plant properly, disease and pests will be minimal.
Pruning is essential to a healthy, productive tree. Paul says, “Think of a leaf as a solar panel.” There needs to be air flow and sunlight. Foliage cannot be too dense.
The harvest schedule goes roughly like this: First, the leaves drop in November. Then it’s time to clean the ground underneath the trees, sweeping up as much debris as possible. Flat, smooth ground is easier to harvest. Then the nuts are swept up and pruning happens after that. Finally leaves are mulched and spread over the ground to incorporate nutrients back into the soil. All this can be done by hand if you have only a couple trees but mechanically if you have many trees.
Many small orchards process the nuts themselves. Lee’s send their pecans to be cracked and shelled and processed elsewhere and you can, too. There are processors, for example, in Texas, that clean their equipment before and after each batch of nuts. That way there is no contamination between nut batches which is especially important for people with allergies. Also, the Lee’s have their nuts lab tested and certified that they are free of salmonella and other diseases.
I always knew to store my nuts in the freezer, but I had not considered that sellers such as big box stores don’t do this. Nuts easily become rancid so your best quality and flavor will come from nuts that have been in cold storage. Buying direct from a grower will get you your best quality nut meats.
Epilogue: Thank you to Paul and Jackie Lee for their generosity and willingness to tell me all about pecans. I can’t think of better pecan farmers than these two! Check out Lee’s Pecans in Willcox, Arizona at https://leespecans.com. They ship their high-quality pecans all over the country.
Renée Benoit lives in southeastern Arizona. She can see Mexico from her living room! She and her partner Marty are in the process of transforming their property into a sustainable homestead. Right now they have 2 dogs, 2 horses and 1 cat to keep them company. She also enjoys traveling to new places to discover native foods as well as wildlife. She writes creative non-fiction and gardens, hikes, reads, sews, cans, ferments, bakes, cooks and needle felts in her spare time.
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