A Penchant for Pecans
Planting an orchard and a life at a fourth-generation farm
Story and Photos by Crissy and Thomas Neville
Returning Home to the Farm
Some things are just quintessentially Southern, like grits, sweet tea and pecans. When my family and I put down permanent roots in my very small Southern hometown of Linden, we happily got all three.
In 1997, when the Neville clan of four returned to Eastern North Carolina for my husband Thomas' textile supervisory job with the then Burlington Industries in neighboring St. Pauls, the first thing we did was move in with his widower father, retired preacher Frank Neville of Dunn. We drank a lot of sweet tea in the house that still resounded of Thomas's even sweeter mom, Lorraine, who was a second mother to me. A nurse, pastor's wife and devoted mother and grandmother, she had passed away two years earlier from pancreatic cancer, and every inch of that house reminded us of her. My tea was never as good, and my grits back then, the instant kind from a package, were not much to brag about either. Still, Frank was glad we were there, and my cooking improved with time.
I am a fourth-generation Linden resident and our daughters, fifth. At this time, my mom still lived in the home place, but I was not sure I wanted to return home to live. Not yet, anyway. So, the four of us — me, Thomas and our first two young daughters, moved in with my father-in-law's to figure it all out.
Well, it was not long before life figured it out for us, with daughter number three, a few years in a house in Fayetteville and a pink slip notice when NAFTA sent all the good textile jobs south of the U.S. border. Sound familiar?
Regardless, God had a plan, and He helped us to follow it. Thomas and I had begun thinking about the land and home I was to inherit before life launched us straight to both much faster than expected. While in town, the lure of our land only 10 miles away had Thomas building a barn, buying a tractor, hunting quail and the two of us planting gardens and surprisingly enough, pecan trees. We were never intended to be city dwellers. Why pecans, you may ask. Well, my dad always had pecan trees in the yard, and as a girl, I had grown up picking and cracking them and eating mama's pecan pies. Daddy sold pecans, officially the nut of the South but not really a nut at all, in his 50-year-tenured store, M.J. Lucas Gas & Grocery, on Highway 217 in Linden, just over the Cumberland County line. He put them in the Christmas fruit bags at our church and my brother, sister and I got them in our Christmas stockings, too.
Back to the not-a-nut business, you see, a pecan is not technically a nut. It is a drupe, a fruit with a single stone or pit surrounded by a husk, like peaches and plums.
Peaches in the summer. Pecans in the fall and winter. Some things just go without question.
And for us Southern-raised high school sweethearts, pecans were the answer to our affection for all things agriculture and desire to farm part of our land, personally. A local farmer leases our other acreage and plants row crops on the land we share with my siblings, while timberland, vegetable gardens and flower beds, horse pastures, ponds, and homesites dot the rest of the landscape. While this remains the lay of the land to this day, Little River Pecan Farm's start in 2000 stirred things up. And fast forward 22 years, and our trees have grown along with our kids.
For two people with professional office jobs — Thomas became a lawyer after his exit from textiles, and I am a retired teacher and present-day editor and writer — hard, physical work and an active, outdoors lifestyle is something we find very rewarding. The fruits of our labor, or this case, "nuts," are bonds with family and friends, enriched relationships, fulfilling farm life, a quality commodity and a healthy pride in what we bring to the table. We give God the glory for bringing us back home.
Planting the Orchard
Planting an orchard first begins with designing or planning the orchard. Before planting the orchard, we had to determine where to plant each tree, what type of cultivar(s) to plant and how many of each. Crissy and I visited several orchards in the late 1990s to learn from other growers, who have most likely made a few mistakes. We were very fortunate to gain the help of North Carolina Pecan Growers Association President Bill Bunn of Wilson. The owner of an orchard of about 300 trees, he agreed to help us design ours.
Orchards are planted on grids — our trees are on a grid of 60-foot squares. Imagine a square 60 feet by 60 feet with 4 points, each representing a tree. Then place one additional point or tree in the very center of each square. The tree placed in the center will be a temporary tree, one to be removed once the canopy of the trees begins to touch. We also did not want the orchard canopy to block out all sunlight, as it is desirable to have as much sunlight as possible. Sunlight encourages growth and discourages diseases such as scab, a fungus that can dramatically decrease nut production.
Planting a large orchard can be daunting. We planted about 135 trees consisting of four different types or cultivars as they are called. We have Pawnee, Sumner, Gloria Grande, Cape Fear and some older Stuarts planted by my wife's father, Milford Lucas. Most pecan growers buy bare-root stock trees and plant them in the winter, usually mid-January. We hired a local farmer with a large tractor, talking 90 hp or more, to auger holes about 3 feet in depth for us to plant our trees. Before augering the holes, we laid the orchard grid out with stakes. We then planted our Georgia-bare root-stock trees over two days. Planting the trees at the correct depth was the most difficult part — the graft union of the tree had to remain above ground level.
Establishing our orchard required quite a bit of pruning in the early years as I tried to train the trees to a central leader, like that of a Christmas tree. The greatest threat to our orchard was not disease or drought but damage from the cold weather. Before forming bark, young trees are susceptible to cold weather damage as the sap can rise on a warm day, and a hard freeze can then cause the tree to split or even die. Before our trees became more mature, we lost close to 30 trees from the cold. Some we replanted, and some we did not. For the most part, we did not replant any temporary trees. We have 100 trees today.
Orchard maintenance includes keeping the orchard floor clean to reduce competition with the trees and spraying for scab and some pests, such as the pecan weevil. Selection of cultivars can be very important as some cultivars are very scan resistant and others not so much. For the most part, we have been fortunate as only one of our varieties has been susceptible to scab to such a degree to affect nut production negatively. The only pest that has been a problem for us has been the pecan weevil; however, it has been fairly easy to manage this pest by spraying Sevin on the orchard floor and the low canopy of the trees in mid-August before the weevils launch from
the orchard floor. We also installed an irrigation system in our orchard, which has been helpful in the nut — or “drupe,” though no one says that —production, although we did not have to use it very much this past year.
Harvest season means all hands on deck. It is a lot of work but is also very rewarding. It is hard to express the genuine warm feeling one has from successfully growing a crop. When I look up from the bottom of the tree all the way to the top of the canopy and realize the absolute bounty of pecans contained in just one tree, it is nothing short of amazing and spectacular. Still, when the pecans begin to fall, there is little time to gaze upon them — it's harvest time!
Early on, we harvested all the nuts by hand, and it was a family enterprise in which all our daughters took part. As Crissy and I grew up working on farms, we knew the value of instilling a hard-work ethic in our daughters, and the orchard provided a means to do this. It also allowed us to teach our children the reward that can come from working hard, as we would give them a portion of the profit. From their earnings, horses were bought, Christmas presents purchased (ones they wished to provide), and small bank accounts built.
Since our daughters have graduated and left home, our trees have grown, and nut production has dramatically increased. We have invested in new equipment: a larger tractor, tree shaker and harvester. We even built a garage for storage, sales and as our workstation.
Also known as the "nutcracker," this last stop is where the pecans are cracked, shelled, cleaned and put into 1-lb. size sealed bags with our Little River Pecan label applied neatly on top. We have been lucky to find great processors — more good people we now count as friends.
One of the most enjoyable parts of growing pecan is the selling. We advertise Little River Pecan Farm on our Facebook site, and when the sale dates arrive, we throw open the garage doors, put on hot apple cider and place chairs out. We love it when folks come to sit and share their farm stories with us, too. This year we are branching out to give farm tours and also sell at various area festivals.
We meet so many people who all have stories of a particular tree that their parents or grandparents had and remember picking up the nuts in the fall, cracking them and eating them right in the yard. Of course, everyone has a favorite pecan pie recipe to share, with excitement escalating for the holidays.
Inevitably, the conversation shifts to pronunciation. “Is it PEE-CAN, PEE-CON or PUH-KAHN,” customers ask, followed by, “And, what's the difference?” Not far from Fort Bragg, we truly meet people from all over the world.
“Oh, about $2 per pound,” I can't help but quip. No extra charge for the humor!
Learn more on our Facebook page @littleriverpecanfarm.