For me, pecans have a strong connection with the meaning of family. Perhaps it’s because pecans are ready for harvest around the time of year when families get together for the holidays. Pecans often grace Thanksgiving dinner tables as the main ingredient of pecan pies and other delectable dishes, or just a dish of autumn deliciousness all on their own. Some of the pecans you enjoy may come from right here in the River Valley.
Paul and Caroline Foshee went from farming cattle to planting pecan trees on their Blackwell spread after the historic 1980 drought contributed to all of their hay catching fire. “I decided this is the end of this,” said Paul. “I’m planting pecan trees and pine trees.”
In 1984 Paul and Caroline planted their first orchard. “I planted 30 acres of pine trees and 12 acres of pecan trees,” Paul said. It was roughly 350 pecan trees on land that Caroline’s mother had left her. “That year we called everywhere trying to buy pecan trees from nurseries all over,” Caroline said. “Everywhere we called, people said they had a freeze and lost millions in trees. The very last one on the list was Tahlequah, Oklahoma. So we called them and found they did indeed have some.”
But Caroline was dubious about their prospects with the Tahlequah pecan trees. “They looked like sticks. I said, ‘I don’t want to sound like doubting Thomas, but this just looks like a stick in the ground.’ We planted them and about half of them died and we had to plant more. After that Paul learned how to graft trees so we could replace the ones that died.”
With the help of family and friends, the Foshee Family Pecan Orchard has grown from a few hundred to a few thousand trees: 2,200 trees to be exact. “We had a lot of help getting them planted,” Caroline said. “Our son and two sons-in-law and their friends planted these with us. We used a machine that dug the hole and then we planted them by hand.”
“Boot Scootin’ Boogie” played in the background as Caroline and I drove down the dirt road leading to the orchard where Paul and several family members were preparing to harvest. Rice and soybean fields flanked us on either side with a gorgeous view of Petit Jean Mountain in the distance. The orchard itself looked like something out of a dream — rows upon rows of perfectly aligned and meticulously cared for pecan trees tucked away in bottomland only a short distance from the currents of the Arkansas River.
When we arrived at the orchard, Paul introduced his son Randy, sons-in-law David and Jerry, and his granddaughter’s husband Chris. Jerry and his wife also have a pecan store in Hot Springs.
The Foshees grow several types of pecan trees. David, Randy and Paul handed out samples of each to show me the differences. “The Kansa is our pollinator. It’s a lot harder, longer, with a different shape,” David said. The Pawnee are smaller, rounder in shape, while the Oconee is shorter than the Kansa. The Foshees also grow Mohawk, Stuart, and Kiowa varieties, and a couple of Caddo trees. “It’s similar to this size,” Paul said pointing to the Pawnee pecan. “But it’s pointed at both ends.”
While they may be harvesting pecans in the middle of October, some of the pecans are still green. “This is about as green as they get,” Paul said. He pulled back the green hull, broke open the shell and showed me the inside of one of the fresh-fallen pecans. It was starch white. “About the middle of August pecans go through what is called a water stage,” Randy said. “If you were to cut it open you can pour water out from where the pecan would be. Then it will go through a gel stage a couple of weeks later, and then you’re getting into the final nut stage like you just saw there. Eventually that’s how you get the nut that you eat.”
Getting a rich harvest of pecans means work begins in January. “It’s a cycle we start all over in the winter,” said David. “We will prune what needs to be pruned and then, as soon as they start budding out, we begin a spray, water, and mowing routine that goes all through the summer,” said David. “These trees probably get better treatment than house plants do.”
Randy added to the care regiment required for a good pecan harvest. “We really pay attention to the kind of nutrients that they need” Randy said. “They’re getting the right fertilizer balance, the leaves are sprayed with zinc to help them pick up the nutrients. There is a lot of feeding irrigation that goes into it. It was fairly wet this summer, but we still ran irrigation. If you look at the trees, there’s a lot of iron in the water down here and you can see the rusty iron stains on the bottom of the trees.”
Spraying usually happens late at night or early in the morning when it’s not as hot. This so the leaves won’t blister in the sun. “Pruning usually generates a pile of limbs that’s bigger than most houses. Randy added. “We have four chain saws running at one time and a couple of tractors.” This time of year, though, is all about harvesting the nuts. “This is the fun part, or at least you can call it that,” David said. “There are some 16-hour-days worth of fun.”
After all the equipment is greased and ready, shaking trees usually starts around 8 a.m. They fired up the tree shaker while I was there and it felt like a mini earthquake. As the contraption did its thing, nuts rained down like hail and bounced like rubber balls. Once a row of trees have been shaken, a large blower attached to another tractor pushes the pecans to one side of the corridor. Then the harvester goes over the fallen pecans, picking them up with rubber fingers. Finally, the nuts are dumped into a huge trailer and hauled back to the shop for cleaning.
The Foshees haven’t always had all of the equipment to make the job easier. Paul bought a tree shaker years ago, but the family used a big army parachute as a harvester back then. “We would have to drape it below the tree, spread it out, and then move the tractor up to the tree and shake the pecans down on the parachute,” said David. “Then roll it up into wash tubs, move it to a 16-foot trailer and then take it back to the shop where we would sort through them by hand. Every year he’s tried to add another piece of equipment to make it a little bit easier. It hasn’t always been easy.”
“I was younger then. It has to get easier the older I get,” Paul said laughing.
“You had to drag the parachute with the tractor and it would be so heavy, even with nothing on it,” David said. It would get wet if there was dew on the ground in the morning or if it rained, and sometimes you had to work when it was wet. You didn’t have an option to wait until dry weather. I’ve said a lot of times that dragging that parachute was about as tired as I’ve ever been. It will make your legs weary doing that.”
“That was a hated piece of equipment,” said Randy. “It would always get wet and would go from really light to pulling the wheels off the front of that tractor from trying to drag it.”
“We had a parachute burning party when we got this machine that picks them off the ground,” David said.
Once the pecans are back to the shop they are emptied from the trailer into a piece of machinery that cleans and sorts the pecans. An elevator scoops up the pecans in small trays that carries them upward to another portion of the machine that rolls the pecans, cleaning off the green hull, twigs, leaves and other earthy debris. A metal chute sticking out of hole in the wall ejects the discarded debris outside. Then the pecans are rolled out onto a conveyor belt where the family picks the green and rotten pecans out of the crop.
“This takes a lot of work,” Caroline said. “We like to have three to four people on each side when we are cleaning. If you don’t have many of the green hulls, it’s fine. But when we have a bunch we need more help.”
The cleaning leaves a temporary tattoo. Matching black stains on the palms of their hands identify pecan farmers and, in this case, their family help. “You can’t get it off,” said Caroline. “It has to wear off.” And apparently the tannins can penetrate even waterproof material. “We’ve been wearing rubber gloves, and the stain from the pecans goes through,” Paul added.
As the pecans are sorted, the conveyor belt sends the nuts back up an elevator where they’re dropped into large white bags. “They usually don’t weigh them until they are finished drying because the pecans can shrink a little while drying,” Caroline said.
These are called super sacks, and they’re filled to the brim with pecans. The sacks stand taller than five feet and have to be moved with a forklift. Small, round, yellow fans blow in air from the bottom of the bag, drying the pecans. You can feel the air escaping from the top of the open bag. Once dry, Caroline said the bags can weigh up to 1,500 pounds. After the pecans dry, they’re moved to the store where they are sold either whole, cracked, or shelled.
“We have two crackers and a sheller in the store,” Caroline said. “We thought the old crackers were fast, they would do 80 a minute. These newer ones, they will crack up to 500 pecans a minute. We don’t usually run it that fast. We always try to inspect them as they are coming out.”
In October, customers are already calling to see if their favorite pecans are ready. “People are chomping at the bits to get them,” David said. “Our phone and email have been blowing up with people asking when they are going to be ready. And people are specific. They just only want that one and will wait on that one variety.”
People from coast to coast either order online or call for Foshee Pecans. “We had an order from Anchorage, Alaska, last night,” David said. “People have ordered from Wyoming, Georgia, New York, Washington, North and South Dakota, and Idaho — basically from all over.” The busiest time for the Foshee Family Pecan Orchard is two weeks before Thanksgiving. “That’s when everyone has pecans on their mind for Thanksgiving dinner,” David said. “You’ll have another rush before Christmas, too.”
The autumn season might entail long, hardworking days for the Foshee family, but it’s a time they can spend together. “Harvest brings everybody in,” Randy said. And seeing the fruit of their labor is not only rewarding, it’s also a tasty snack.