Country World article

pecans-in-shell

Call of the crow beckons pecan harvest
By Stuart Tendler, Country World Staff

August 24, 2000

As Richard Haller walks through his pecan orchard, located between Covington and Grandview, near the border of Hill and Johnson counties in Texas, the sound of crows along the edges of his property is a double-edged sword.

Once his pecan hulls open, the crows are enemy No. 1. But, on the other hand, their cry is a pleasant reminder that fall is approaching and it will not be too long before his pecan harvester will need dusting off and the rush will be on to hit the retail market before its crash after Christmas.

Richard Haller made his living as an aircraft engineer in Fort Worth – somewhat a change from the farming and ranching life of his retirement.

But for Haller and his wife, Gay, the outdoors always remained integral to their lifestyles, and when they were first starting out, bought land that is now home to their pecan orchard.

As luck would have it, they found themselves situated on a strip of sandy loam soil ideal for pecan trees that only runs two to three miles wide.

The Hallers bought the property in 1965. At that time, there were about six native trees. Haller went about setting up his own nursery, began expanding every year, and continued planting until 1992, the same year he retired. In 1999, the Haller orchard produced about 10,000 pounds of pecans.

The 2000 harvest will not be as plentiful, Haller said. On top of the drought and grasshopper problem, this is the downside of an alternate bearing year, a harsh fact of producing pecans that Haller said poses the greatest difficulty. Haller’s orchard is on dry land and yet he expects to see a better yield than a friend who irrigates – it is just a year for a light crop.

Haller has reaped some of his greatest enjoyment in working with his orchard through the grafting process – inserting the stem, limb, or trunk of an improved pecan tree into a native tree.

About 90 percent of Haller’s trees are grafted – by him personally. He said trees bought out of a nursery are grafted too low and are too expensive.

Haller takes graft wood off the first year growth of an improved tree. He will leave some amount of the original tree below the graft, preferably about four to five feet. This keeps the developed root system going and helps the tree retain strength for shaking during harvesting.

Having worked with improved trees, Haller said he thinks the best variety of pecans is Desirable. Their superior qualities are:

  • They keep well.
  • They do not overproduce.
  • They are not susceptible to scab fungus.
  • The pecan automatically drops off the tree if it gets too dry.
  • They have good meat percentage (fills the whole shell).    

This last point is of particular importance because, “people are becoming more educated to buying pecans for meat size, not shell size,” Haller said.

The Haller orchard is now coming full circle. Haller planted his trees with 25-foot spacing going both ways. When things were just getting underway, nuts were handpicked with ladders. Gradually equipment was added, and now, Haller said the only thing he may need is a bigger shaker.

That, of course, is because the older trees are much bigger now. So much so that the trees are crowding and the limbs touching – an unsustainable situation: Thinning and cutting are in order.

“Now we need to start cutting some down, and we’re doing it,” Haller said.

Haller said the biggest changes pecan production has seen since he began are the introduction of zinc foliar spray for fertilizer and integrated pest management – the practice of monitoring for insects and spraying only when necessary rather than on a set schedule.

Haller has a coastal Bermuda grass established in his orchard and bales hay out from between the trees until the tree takes over – which the older ones have done.

Haller runs a small herd of cattle and will turn them into the orchard for the winter, following harvest.

“I just enjoy working with (the trees), especially grafting, watching the crop come in, caring for them,” Haller said.