Think of pecans and Georgia groves come to mind but the Peach State traces its reputation in the nut industry to real estate developers who, from the late 1890s to about 1920, sold thousands of five acre tracts of newly planted pecan seedlings to Northerners as retirement investments. The natural range of pecans was further west, from Louisiana to central Texas, north through eastern Oklahoma and Kansas and most of Missouri, north up the Mississippi River bottomlands to southeastern Iowa and central Illinois, up the Ohio River to southern Indiana and western Kentucky, and east to central Tennessee and western Alabama. Its thin shell and large kernel (nearly half the weight of the nut) made it a favorite food for Native Americans and its popularity with European settlers grew when traders and trappers brought the nuts to the east along with their beaver skins--long before American pioneers crossed the Allegheny Mountains. Like the black walnut, the pecan is an excellent shade tree and produces valuable timber as well as nuts.
Throughout much of Missouri, pecan trees grow wild scattered among many other hardwood species. There are two large centers of pecan processing and cultivation in Missouri. The counties of Bates and Vernon and the county of Chariton are home to multiple pecan processors and many pecan growers. All three of these counties have significant harvests from wild native pecan trees clustered together in 'pecan groves'. These counties also have a number of planned and planted pecan orchards, which can consist of: seedlings of known varieties, native trees grown from local seed, and also grafted pecan trees. A potentially large advantage of grafted pecan trees is that nuts can be larger, yields can be had sooner, yields can be more consistent, yields also tend to be overall larger per acre than yields from many wild pecan trees. All of these advantages are not guaranteed however, and the pecan industry since its very beginnings has been plagued by the problem that it is very difficult to tell how a given variety from a very long-lived tree species (such as pecan) will fare in the future. Watching a tree for 20 years and seeing it produce quality nuts does not guarantee that at year 25 it will not develop alternate bearing (producing heavily one year and very light the next year), or that it will not become susceptible to a disease (pecan scab is a large problem with pecans grown in humid areas).
Nuts or Wood?
While any pecan tree can produce nuts, growing trees specifically for nut production differs dramatically from growing for high quality timber. Trees in the nut orchard are planted far apart, and have short trunks and wide spreading branches. Trees that are often grown for their timber value (such as Black Walnut) are often planted fairly close together.
General Production Notes:
The best pecan production sites have deep, well-drained, fertile soils. Native pecans grow in the deep alluvial soils found along major rivers and streams. Additionally, native pecans also thrive in deep upland soils (such as Missouri's loess river hills) where there is adequate water and where there is little clay, and no soil layer to obstruct water movement and limit root growth (ex. a claypan). While regarded as flood-tolerant, the trees cannot persist in soils that remain saturated for extended periods. They can be grown without irrigation but drought will reduce production in both the current growing season and that which follows.
Pecans are the fastest growing member of the hickory family and are used as the root stock when grafting other species of hickory. Although there is not sufficient difference across its range to warrant subdividing the pecan species, there are cultivars which are considered more representative of a “Northern pecan” which originated in the northern part of pecan range and can be successfully grown in the northern parts of the eastern United States. Unlike the huge nuts grown in southern commercial orchards, the Northern pecan is smaller (100-180 nuts/pound) and sweeter. Pecan orchards can be established by planting stratified nuts as well as transplanting bare root and container-grown nursery stock. If you are planting grafted trees, be certain to select cultivars resistant to pecan scab. Pecan trees bear both male and female flowers on the same tree. The period when pollen is shed on a tree is usually different from when the stigmas on the female flower on the same tree are receptive to pollen. Where there are nearby native trees, there should be adequate wind-blown pollen available to fertilize your trees. If there are no nearby pecans, plant both protandrous (tree sheds pollen before the stigma is mature) and protogynous (stigma matures before the tree sheds pollen) cultivars. Many cultivars that grow best in Missouri are not readily available from commercial nurseries but scionwood is can be obtained from local growers. Trees should be planted on a minimum 30’ X 30’ spacing. Pecan trees can be long lived and will require thinning when the closing canopy affects production. Nut production generally begins 4-6 years after grafting. Pecan trees and nuts are subject to significant insect problems, including pecan nut casebearer, hickory shuckworm, pecan weevil, fall webworm, and walnut caterpillar. Pecan scab can render a nut crop worthless: plant resistant cultivars. Young trees left unprotected may be damaged when they are browsed or rubbed by deer.
Some cultivars that can be recommended at this time for planting in Missouri are:
Major - Tried and true, this variety has excellent resistance to pecan scab, produces kernels of high quality, is cold hardy, and is a reliable producer.
Kanza - Offspring of Major. Inherited excellent pecan scab resistance, high quality kernels, fairly reliable production. Trees may not be quite as cold hardy as some other northern pecan cultivars. Some growers north of the Missouri River have had problems with branch dieback during cold snaps or very cold weather.
Shepherd - A native Missouri seedling tree. Nut quality is fairly good, high pecan scab resistance, fairly reliable production, has been reported to be very cold hardy.
Harvest Equipment Needs:
Pecans should be gathered as soon as possible after they fall. Poles can be used to shake nuts from trees onto tarps spread on the ground below. Larger operations may warrant the use of mechanical shakers. Nuts can be gathered by hand or using nut wizards (a rolling wire basket). Producers with large groves use mechanical sweepers to collect their crop. Pecan harvest usually begins in late October and can continue through the winter months.
Pecans are a highly desired nut for eating out of shell as well as for use in baked products. Individuals sell cracked in-shell nuts along the roadsides of southwestern Missouri as well as through on the farm markets, small specialty shops, and at the workplace. FAIR WARNING: Pecans are subject to a number of diseases and insect pests and you’ll be competing with crows, blue jays, and squirrels for the nut crop. Like many nut trees, the size of the crop varies from year to year. Irrigation and fertilization can reduce this to some degree.
There are those who collect cultivars of various hickory nuts, primarily shellbark and shagbarks with an occasional hybrid in the mix. All are looking for that easily cracked, meaty and flavorful nut. Few growers are actually producing for market.
Shagbark and mockernut hickories produce delicately flavored nuts. Mockernut (Carya tomentosa) is common on drier upland sites. Shellbark hickory grow in bottomlands and have the largest leaves and nuts of the hickory family. The nuts make good eating but, in some years, fail to fill due to drought or other conditions. There is no commercial interest in hickory nuts although niche markets exist and you may be able to create a local demand. Hickories don't reliably set a crop every year so set some aside for the future in when there is a productive year. No need to crack all of them at one time: hickories retain their good flavor if frozen in the shell.