Bright future of growth from a strong past

Photos by Carolyn Ross Tomlin.
(Above) Jimmy Moore shows a basket of the prized pecans, plus a few onions, grown at Mooreland in west Tennessee. (Below) Ashaker attaches to a tractor and shakes the pecans from the trees.
Three generations of the Moore family work in the annual pecan harvest.

Harvesting pecans from 1,000 trees and working together as a family is nothing new to Edie and Jimmy Moore of Haywood County, Tenn. It’s also not unusual for a family to own the same land for a several years, but Mooreland, their ancestral home near Brownsville, Tenn., dates back to the early 1800s.

In 1826, Moore’s great-grandfather, John Bertie Moore, came to Haywood County from Bertie County, N.C., with the Nixons and Bonds, early west Tennessee settlers. Like other land owners, they raised cotton. The patriarch settled on 10,000 acres west of Brownsville and died in 1860. His wife, Judith Bell Estes, managed the plantation after her husband’s death.

Fast forward to the early 1960s. “As the cotton allotment was cut every year, my mother, Mrs. J.W.E. (Frances) Moore and I searched for alternative crops,” says Moore. “Okra was in demand at the Wintergarden Company in Bells, Tenn., a company that bought vegetables from local farmers and froze them for wholesale grocery chains. We raised 50 acres of okra, which was cut every other day and sent to the market. Wearing rubber gloves made the task a little easier.” On some of the acreage, cotton and soybeans continued to be grown. With 10 tenant farmers living on the land, the family had to find other means of making a living.

Their solution was to plant pecan trees. In 1963, the first of 2,000 pecan trees were planted on Mooreland by Moore and his mother. Fertile, well-drained soil in west Tennessee is suited to growing nut trees. In a paper entitled, “Home Fruit Production—Pecans,” written by John A. Lipe of the Agricultural Program of the Texas A & M University System, states:

“Pecans are native to river and creek bottoms, the soils of which are deep, fertile and well-drained and have substantial water-holding capacity. Pecans require at least 3 feet of well-drained soil above the minimum depth of the water table to develop a strong root system. Pecans planted on shallow soils having poor internal drainage never develop into large, productive trees.”

Using post-hole diggers and their hands, tenants living on Mooreland planted the first pecan trees. After digging the holes for trees, they filled the cavity with water from a 55-gallon drum pulled on a sled by mules. Later, the Moores, along with their adult children, expanded the operation by purchasing adjoining land already planted in a pecan grove. Today, the Mooreland farm contains about 1,000 of the original 10,000 acres.

Success means being prepared

From an early age, Moore has been a businessman and farmer. After retiring from banking and the U.S. Small Business Administration, working in Washington D.C., and Nashville, the Moores travel between their Nashville home and the country home in Brownsville. “I stay in Brownsville three-fourths of the time, and go to Nashville when it rains or snows,” says Moore. As past director of the Southeastern Pecan Growers Association, he has been active in concerns that affect farmers.

(Above Left) A rake is used to pick up small limbs blown down by the wind. (Above and Left) Edie Moore explains how pecans move from the conveyor belt into a storage area.

Graduating from the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., Moore majored in political science. Applying skills learned in college, he did his homework in entering the pecan business. With his father, a lawyer in Brownsville and later in Nashville, publisher of the States-Graphic and serving in the state legislature, Moore developed a background in legal issues, agriculture and business.

The pecans trees at Mooreland come from grafted stock. In clearing a thicket on the farm, Moore removed all the trees except pecans and hickories. Then, he grafted pecan branches onto hickory trees so they would bear the favored pecans. The orchard contains several varieties, including Desirable, Owens and Success, but Stuart and Mahan make up the majority of trees. A mature tree bears approximately 200 pounds.

“The spring of 2007 was a total loss for pecans and other nut and fruit trees,” says Edie. “We were 100 percent wiped out. About 50 trees died, and there are others that won’t make it. Last year, we didn’t apply any fertilizer to our pecan trees as this can be harmful to an already stressed plant.” A leaf analysis made on a regular schedule keeps the pH right.

“Birds are a problem for pecan growers,” says Edie. “Did you know that a crow can carry three pecans away at one time? One in each claw and one in their beak!” Blue jays and squirrels also take their share—and more. Another pest is the stink bug, which he sprays as needed for the specific purpose. Webworms often attack nut trees and an insecticide is necessary. Spray is used at bud-break, but once the pecan opens up, poisonous chemicals cease.

Burlap bags hold 100 pounds of pecans.

Insecticides to control insects include Sevin, Provado and Thiodan. For a fungicide to destroy or limit the growth of fungi, he uses Super 10. All chemicals must meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) approval.

Change equals progress

Over the years, changes have made cultivating, general upkeep and harvesting easier. Through updating the equipment, a 500-gallon sprayer reaches even the tallest trees. When an overloaded limb breaks, a rake picks up broken branches. Within the grove of trees, a 12-foot bush hog mower keeps grass cut and clipped. In early days, pecans were picked up one-by-one by hand. Today, a shaker clamps the trunk of the tree and shakes the pecans to the ground where a harvester picks them up. Grain buggies contain a gravity flow design for moving the nuts, while an elevator delivers pecans to a conveyor belt. Cleaned and displayed, a machine inside the farm building prepares the nuts for inspection. Sacked nuts are placed in 100-pound burlap bags ready for market and local sales. Smaller amounts are weighed in 10 and 20-pound containers.

However, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Generations of Moores have taken a pail and picked fallen pecans one-by-one over the last decades. Today, even the youngest grandchild enjoys this simple activity.

Harvesttime: A family affair

In early winter, when temperatures drop and leaves fall, the nuts are ready to harvest. Pecans in clusters of three to 11 are enclosed in husks that break away at maturity. The thin husk splits into four sections and may stay on the tree after the pecan has dropped. A shaker secured to the large trees drops the nuts into a net, or winds blow the pecans from the trees.

Six extra employees, in addition to family members, are needed on the inspection table. The entire clan, including adult children, spouses and grandchildren, come to help with the annual harvest.

Customers know the pecans are ready when a sign goes up on Highway 54 and an ad appears in the States-Graphic. A shed in front of the home place serves as the market, offering sacks of nuts ranging from 1 pound to a truckload. Returning each year, many customers await the large paper-shell pecans sold at $1 a pound. Buyers who have come for years return each fall for annual purchases.

Small grocery stores in west Tennessee also buy from Mooreland. Word-of-mouth advertising of a good product, at a fair price, makes for satisfied customers.

For generations, pecans have been a part of the Moore family. With many small farmers selling out and leaving the farm, the Moore clan understands the importance of keeping the bonds of family strong. “The land—it’s part of our heritage,” remarks Jimmy.

The author writes from Jackson, Tenn.