Pecans: A Southern Delicacy Big Business for Some Deltans

By Greta Sharpe

Pecans play a starring role in most Southern holiday tables. From roasted and salted pecans for snacks to pecan dressing to everyone’s favorite Karo Pecan Pie, the holidays just wouldn’t be complete without them. 

They are often part of treasured memories and traditions. “My mother made wonderful pecan pies and I make them exactly the way she made them,” said Henry Earl Long, who grows pecans in West Bolivar County.

They make great gifts for a hostess or 1,000 clients. “During the holidays, when you celebrate or entertain, and it’s warm and cozy, it can be put out anywhere, a cocktail party or a family dinner,” said Cadey Heaton True of Heaton Pecans in Lyon. “They’re around our house all through the holidays.”

In Mississippi, pecans are big business. Indianola Pecan House buys a lot of pecans. “We buy in about six states,” said President Tim Timbs. “We buy local; we try to buy all we can locally. If it wasn’t for our Mississippi customers, we wouldn’t be here.”

When buying pecans, Timbs looks for quality: the size, color and weight of the meat. Once purchased, the nuts are cleaned, dried and packaged for retail, wholesale or industrial customers. “Most of the retail is ourselves,” explained Timbs. There are three stores, a mail order business and a commercial candy kitchen.

New this year is the Jack Daniel’s Honey Pecan. “It’s a great product,” Timbs said. “It’s been very well received across the U.S.” Indianola Pecan House’s top three products are praline pecan, chocolate and roasted pecans. “We do everything in house,” he said. Indianola Pecan House also custom-manufactures pecan, cashew and almond products for customers.

The action starts in July with the wholesale business, peaks in November and December, and runs through early March. “We’re not quite as busy (in January through March), but we’re relatively busy,” commented Timbs. “It slows down a good bit, but at the same time, we’re still going pretty good.” Open year-round, Indianola Pecan House has permanent retail sites in Indianola and Flowood, with a temporary store in Tupelo open in November and December. It also services a number of retail accounts.

Standing the test of time, Indianola Pecan House is celebrating thirty-nine years of business. “We’re very humble as a family-owned business and we’ve got fantastic employees,” said Timbs. And while the company counts a number of celebrities among its customers, he said anyone can expect star treatment: “When you walk into one of our stores, you feel like you’re welcomed and we’ll help you in any way we can, a question or gift-wrap or shipping, in a
quick fashion.”

All of Heaton Pecans’ in-shell nuts are grown by the family in its pecan orchard, about a quarter-mile from their storefront. True’s husband, Ford, handles the orchard where Desirable and Stuart pecans are grown, a job he’s taking over from her father, Cliff Heaton. “They are the premium pecans, heavy in meat, that everyone wants, with a great flavor,” said True, describing Desirable pecans.

The rainy weather forced Heaton Pecans to hire hand pickers in November to get the pecans off the wet ground, said True. Ideally, a tree-shaker shakes Heaton Pecans’ trees twice a season so the pecans fall to the ground to be picked up by a harvester.

This year, True said, the Heaton Pecan crop is huge. “It really just goes in spurts,” she explained. “Last year was decent; this year, the trees are really heavy. They are just heavy with pecans.”

Business at Heaton Pecans runs from Oct. 24 to Dec. 26. Corporate orders are popular, said True, with the largest for 3,000 tins. Other orders range from 200 to 800 tins. “Our corporate business is growing every year and that’s kind of our main goal,” she said. Last July, Sam’s Club began offering Heaton Pecans. “We’re available year-round to order on,” True reported. “We’re just thankful to have this opportunity.”

Heaton Pecans’ storefront opened in 1975, and is staffed by True and her mother, Chris Heaton. The most popular items are chocolate-covered, praline, and roasted and salted pecans.

Long can trace his history with pecans back to his childhood. “I started fiddling with pecans when I was ten” Long said. His father paid Long to harvest the small family orchard, paying him $.10 a pound for what he could pick up by hand. He managed $6 to $10 a day.

A farmer for thirty-five years, pecans are now a sideline for Long. “I like doing this,” he said. “I may not make much money, and it’s just another form of gambling in a way, but I like doing it.”

Today, Long has 160 to 170 acres filled with 1,600 pecan trees. Most were planted in the early 1960s. While he grows different varieties, the two main types are Desirable and Stuart.

Long sells mainly to wholesalers. Representatives come to his orchard and run a sample on his pecan crop, weighing a pound then counting the nuts in the pound to figure a price. “The less nuts in a pound, the more it’s worth,” he said. Less than fifty nuts to a pound is good, while sixty nuts to a pound often means the buyer will discount the price.

“I’ve got a crop that looks promising,” Long said before Thanksgiving. He picked up 10,000 to 12,000 pecans with his sweeper, dumped them in a trailer and ran them through a portable cleaner. Finally, he packed them in 2,000-lb. bags. Buyers haul them off, 30,000 pounds at a time.

Max Draughn is president of the Mississippi Pecan Growers Association and has several hundred acres of pecan trees in Raymond. The mission of the organization is disseminating information about the market as it relates to the rest of the country and the world, and to advance the growing of and access to pecans.

Additionally, the organization connects growers with appropriate extension personnel at relevant universities, said Draughn, who cited Texas A&M and Georgia for significant pecan research.

The Mississippi Pecan Growers Association holds annual spring and fall field days for members. It is part of the Tri-State Pecan Growers Meeting that involves Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, and the Southeastern Pecan Growers Association, where Draughn sits on the board of directors, which covers seven states.

Draughn likens pecans to any other agricultural commodity, struggling with the vagaries of weather and markets. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Draughn cautioned. “There’s a long time between planting and return on investment, with upkeep and cultivation to get to production.”

Prime production for a pecan tree are years fifteen to eighty, he said. On his farm, Pecan Hill Farms and Bass Pecan Company, there are one hunder acres planted in 1869 to 1873 that are still very productive.

Once planted, orchards require spraying of insecticide and fungicide multiple times, trimming of lower tree limbs and mowing the grass around the trees, said Long. Fungicide allows the trees to have a good chance of producing a crop in the following year, but it must be applied to the foliage. He has a sprayer with a fan that blows the spray upward into the trees.

Draughn said the fall’s wet weather hindered the harvest. “It actually stopped harvesting because it was so wet,” he explained. “We don’t like the wet weather this long. Pecans on wet ground leads to a degradation of quality.”

In 2018, a hurricane decimated at least fifty percent of Georgia’s pecan orchards and heavy flooding in Texas led to a fifteen percent crop loss there, said Draughn. Mississippi yielded a smaller crop due to a spring freeze and in the southern part of the state, too much rain in the growing season led to pollination problems and diseases.

Weather is just one factor affecting the pecan market, said Draughn. High tariffs and dwindling interest from China are having a significant impact on the market. Prices are down thirty to thirty-five percent from last year, said Draughn. Lower-grade pecans can be chopped up for the food market and purchased, but at lower prices. “The quality is off across the whole spectrum, somewhat,” he said.

While the Mississippi Pecan Growers Association counts seventy-five members, Draughn estimates there are three times that many growers in the state. There are no large growers left in Mississippi as the industry peaked in the 1960s when it produced 40 million pounds of pecans.

Today, pecans are somewhat biennial, Draughn explained, with trees having “on” and “off” years. In an “off” year such as this, Mississippi produces four for 4.5 million pounds of pecans. Over the last few years, that number has been over eight million.

But all that really matters is if they are on your holiday table. Mississippi’s love affair with pecans continues, because, as Long shared: “Everybody likes pecans.”