Earlier this year, I began freelancing for a small, start-up monthly paper in the Texas Hill Country. Being pretty passionate about telling the authentic stories of the region, this is a pretty good fit–even if I have less time to blog. On the other hand, because I archive all the stories on my writing Web site, I have accumulated a good bit of fresh content over there.
This month, I had a story about a Texas Pecan grower that I thought y’all might find interesting. Read on for the story, two informative sidebars, and a couple of photos. And if it makes you hungry for the nuts, then head on over to the Texas Pecan Growers Association for recipes that will make you drool.
Down on the Grove
Local pecan farmer gears up for harvest
Story and photographs by Pamela Price
What might motivate a corporate executive (and native Coloradoan) to uproot and resettle in Central Texas as a professional pecan grower? Try true love with a dash of the Red Headed Stranger.
“I met my wife several years ago at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July concert. She was living in Fair Oaks, so we kept up a long-distance relationship,” said Don Hagans. “About 7 years ago we decided to make a go of it.”
Not long after the move and following Hagans’ sale of several Centennial State rental properties, Hagans and his wife Fay purchased a little over 10 acres in Fair Oaks loaded with pecan trees.
Having grown up on a Colorado horse farm, Hagans was familiar enough with agriculture.
The 250 pecan trees ranging in age from 35 to 40 years, however, were pretty new to the new landowner. “There are no pecan trees in Colorado,” said Hagans.
The new venture keeps Hagans busy.
“There is always something to do here, year ’round. In the winter, we’re trimming the trees back. There’s the irrigation to deal with. We shred and mow in the summer. We add nitrogen to the soil. If there’s a drought or high winds and broken branches-whatever the weather brings, we have to address.”
Autumn is a time of peak activity at the grove. Not only is it the time of year when Hagans’ customers start thinking about making homemade pecan pies and other seasonal goodies, it’s also the time of year that the nuts reach maturity.
“Our harvest runs from October to December. Pecans are like grapes. Certain varieties ripen at different times,” said Hagans. “According to the Texas Department of Agriculture, there are over 100 registered varieties. We have 9 of them.”
To gather the fruit in the fall, Hagans and his crew use a piece of equipment called a “shaker,” which attaches to a tractor. After clamping it to the tree trunk, the driver fires up the shaker to give the tree a short vibration. The pecans then fall to the ground. Hagans said the each tree yields about 50 to 100 pounds of pecans.
Once the pecans are on the ground, the team employs another device, a “harvester,” to roll around the ground and pull up pecans. “[The harvester] looks a lot like what they use at a golf course to collect balls,” said Hagans.
Next the pecans are hauled off to a processing barn where they are dried prior to shelling. “To get them dry enough, we’ve got to get the humidity down to less than 5 percent. Mother Nature either helps or hurts us,” said Hagans, who uses a large fan to facilitate the drying when necessary. “Once they are dry, we take them to a place in Junction for processing. They give us boxes of pieces and halves. We then package them ourselves.”
While Mrs. Hagans oversees the packaging and shipping of the products as well as the grove’s Web site (www.CircleHOrchards.com), Hagans oversees the sales, bringing to the task skills acquired in the corporate world. “In my past life, I was a senior vice president of sale for First Data Corporation.” Currently, the bulk of the sales are done through weekly farmers markets (including both Leon Springs and Boerne). “We have a few resellers, too. Roadside stores and the like. With the upcoming holidays, I’ll be at the Boerne Market Days in November and December as well as the annual Oma’s Christmas in December at the Kendall County Fairgrounds.”
Despite the hectic schedule, Hagans believes the orchard work has brought him full circle. “My paternal grandfather had a huge wheat farm in Colorado. He taught me how to drive a tractor when I spent summers at his farm. I love the outdoors. Yes, it’s a lot of hard work but I enjoy it. On that tractor, you’re your own boss,” said Hagans, adding with a chuckle. “Well, except for those whims of Mother Nature.”
Caring for Fresh Pecans
For Don Hagans of Circle H Orchards local pecans are unrivaled by store-bought nuts. “At the grocery store, those nuts may have been in the freezer for up to a year before they are defrosted and sold. Local pecans offer a freshness and quality that can’t be beat.” Hagans said that fresh nuts may be left at room temperature for 30 to 40 days or in the fridge for up to 3 months. “You can leave them in the fridge for up to a year. In fact, we sell ours in heavy duty Ziploc bags and tell our customers to put them in the freezer right away.”
Sign of the Times
Blame the recession or the distractions of the Information Age, but Don Hagans has noticed a change in the habits of pecan consumers. “When I first started this business, 60 to 70 percent of my sales were nut pieces and halves. The rest of my sales were whole nuts. Now, about 90 percent of my sales are pieces and halves. People don’t have patience or time to crack nuts. The majority of people who enjoy the whole or cracked nuts are older, retired. Of course, I think they also enjoy the ritual, which reminds them of when they were kids.”