A blessing and a curse for Texas grower

After 25 years of growing, harvesting, buying and selling Texas pecans, Lucille and Jay Dee Tobias pretty well have it down.

A big banner in front of their headquarters on State Highway 71 in Ellinger, Texas, announces “Pecans,” as if it were a cause for celebration. Those who stop to taste their fresh pecan products know that it is.

“People say our pecans in this area—south-central Texas—have the best flavor, because of the humidity,” Jay Dee said. Some other pecans may look just as good, he said, but can taste dry, like a walnut.

That same humidity that makes pecans taste good can be the enemy of a grower. “Humidity causes a scab—that black spot on a pecan or on a leaf,” Tobias explained. “It grows and grows until it kills that nut. It takes all the nutrients, keeps them from going into the meat.” Drier areas are usually not troubled with pecan scab.

One way to fight the disease is to spray with fungicide on a regular basis, starting in the spring. Many growers that Tobias Pecans buys from do this. Growers in the area around Ellinger may spend up to $1,000 an acre on spraying their trees, with an acre averaging 25 trees.

Tobias takes another approach. He quit spraying and harvests primarily only native pecans, which are not as susceptible to disease. “The natives are pretty much good every year,” he said. “They are the strong survivors. They are the bread and butter. I deal with about 2,000 native trees.”

Texas produces more native pecans than any other state. You can find them growing along almost every river or creek bottom. It is the state tree. The Texas Pecan Board (www.texaspecans.org) notes that an average pecan crop for Texas is about 60 million pounds.

Lucille and Jay Dee Tobias share the work at Tobias Pecans.

Heavy rains earlier this year hit grafted varieties especially hard, causing pecan scab disease to attack any orchards that had not been well–protected. “The grafted stuff is too much work,” Tobias said. “If you don’t manage those really, really super and spend a lot of money to spray, you’re not going to have a good crop. This year I didn’t even harvest my orchards because they were so bad. It was too much labor to pick the good ones out, so I just let the animals have them.”

In a better year, he would have had his own crop of Desirables, Choctaw, Sioux and Kiowa pecans, as well as natives.

This year, he still handled grafted varieties that other growers sold him for his retail business. “That’s the easy way to go,” he said.

Technology has made it possible for Tobias Pecans to thrive without bringing in outside employees. The harvest season begins in October and ends in January, and Tobias does it all himself, with occasional help from a nephew. Tobias drives a Ford (New Holland) tractor and has a shaker, or pecan picker, he pulls behind it. He explains that a shaker is a drum with about 500 rubber fingers that rotate on the ground. There is a curved drum in front that flips the pecans up on a chain. It can pick up 400 to 500 pounds of pecans before you dump it, he said.

The shaker he uses is a Savage, made by Basil Savage, a pecan grower, manufacturer and a buyer/seller of pecans who lives in Madill, Okla. (Savage Equipment Co., 580-795-5568). He makes wonderful machinery,” Tobias said. “The shaker, which he considers new, has already lasted 30 years. That’s 30 years of being used hard three months out of the year. It cost him $36,000.

Previously, he had an older machine, a Lockwood, that could only do 70 or 80 pounds before you had to empty it. The Savage shaker made a huge difference. So did the addition of a pre-cleaner in the field. Jay Dee dumps the pecans into that pre-cleaner, and it gets them 85 to 90 percent clean, blowing out all the hulls and leaves, and catches them in the Savage Super Sack. “With this booger, I can go out myself and pick me 2,000 pounds a day,” he said.

“All he does is move from machine to machine,” Lucille said. “It’s important to get the pecans off the ground as soon as you can.”

Back at their warehouse, another cleaner blows out the lightweight materials that are left, and the pecans are sorted according to quality. Their next step is to contract with shellers. When the pecans come back, the best will be sold as shelled pecans.

Jay Dee Tobias with sacks of his native pecans.

Tobias said that he has been harvesting pecans “since I was little.” He grew up on a farm along the Colorado River bottom, 5 miles out of Ellinger. His then-future wife, Lucille, lived next door, where her grandfather Willie Vasut had planted one of the first pecan orchards in the area in the 1930s.

“We grew up together; our farms were side by side,” Lucille said. “We went to school together, graduated together, went to Houston, found jobs. Then, the next year, 1959, we got married.”

They came back to Ellinger in 1975. They missed country living. At first, Tobias sold real estate and harvested pecans on the side, with Lucille handling the office work. He initially dealt with about 100 native pecan trees; then he planted 140 trees of improved varieties in his orchard. At first, he traveled outside of town for custom harvesting jobs.

Jay Dee Tobias has had years of good use out of this pecan cracker.

Then, they added a retail business. Both say they work harder now than they ever did in any nine-to-five Houston job.

When they started the pecan retail operation it wasn’t so easy. That first year, 1982, the couple made only $500. “I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know about this,” Lucille said, “but we kept on.”

She said, “We learned a lot from the public, from the people, and what they’ll do to you, especially when you’re new and green at it. They’ll sell you a sack of pecans with rocks in it to give a little more weight. Or they’ll have the fresh pecans on top, the old ones on the bottom. After a time, we learned, and I know what to look for now.”

It took a long time to gain the trust of the growers, and to learn which growers could be trusted in return. Tobias said, “A lot of them don’t want to fool with you. You have to kind of get your way in.” The Tobiases now deal with all the growers within a 50-mile radius. That includes 10 or 15 big growers and many small farms with orchards. Tobias Pecans also does a lot of pecan cracking.

“It’s the same thing with the retail business,” Lucille said. “The customers have to learn to trust us for quality.”

How well they have succeeded at that is evident from the fact that they have considerable repeat and referral business. Customers seldom ask to test the pecans before they buy. They trust the product. Tobias Pecans does a hefty mail-order business, especially busy in the three months before Christmas. Their business is one of the main reasons the post office at Ellinger has remained open.

Lucille started selling the frosted pecans (cinnamon and sugar, sugar-free cinnamon, chocolate) she makes herself three years ago; and for the last 10 years she has been making and selling mini pecan pies. “It’s almost more than I can handle,” she said. (You can see their catalog offerings at www.tobiaspecans.com). Occasionally, her niece helps out. “I like to be very hands-on,” Lucille said.

Demand outstrips what the couple can do, but they have no plan to expand their operation. “Everything would change,” Lucille said. “We’d have to get a larger kitchen…”

“Our bodies can’t take the physical work,” Tobias said. “At 67 and 68, we’re getting close to retirement age. People come to us and want us to supply them with 100 bags a week. I tell them there’s no way we could do that.”

Neither of them has any plan to retire, so long as their health is good. “We love doing it,” Lucille said.

Jay Dee Tobias loads pecans into the warehouse pre-cleaner while Lucille watches.

“We love it,” Tobias echoed. He likes the peacefulness of the river bottom, the pleasures of a good crop of pecans.

Besides their year-round pecan business, they dabble in cattle and real estate, to offset any bad pecan years.

Every July they go to the meeting of the Texas Pecan Growers Association (www.tpga.org) to see friends, exchange information, look at new equipment and maybe take a bus tour of local orchards. “There are different A&M guys there telling us how to do it all,” Lucille said. “But, of course, they learn from us, too.”

Tobias does not get excited about every new pecan variety that comes out, though he admits some show promise. “A lot of times those new varieties are good for a few years, and then they just go bad. They don’t fill out, or they’re disease-prone,” he said. “There’s no perfect pecan, but the natives are 90 percent good.”

This past year he picked a little over 50,000 pounds—a truckload. In 2006, he picked just 15,000 pounds. “The prices were good, though,” he said. “It was a dry year. This year the prices were half, and the quality wasn’t as good. There was too much rain. Weather plays such a big role in this, as it does in most agriculture.” There are other factors, too, like marauding crows that hit the pecans especially hard when it’s too wet for him to work, and feral hogs that root up the ground. There’s also the random lightning strike that can destroy a big, native pecan tree.

“It’s an interesting business,” Tobias said.

Anne Morris, a freelance contributor, lives in Austin, Texas.