Bouncing back from a one-two weather punch
Ralph Voss, 53, Carlyle, Ill., developed a love of pecan trees early, and he’s never stopped caring about them. His tenacity has been tested in the last year and a half, after spending 15 years bringing along a 60-acre pecan grove to a highly productive state. He then saw it decimated by a major, summer windstorm and then by a late freeze the following spring. His pecan grove—grove refers to native stands, while orchards are planted—is the only remaining commercial pecan production operation in Illinois. Despite the setbacks, Voss is counting on his product quality to regain his customers after a year out of the market.
Voss and his wife, Karen Voss, own Voss Pecans (www.vosspecans.com). At harvest time, the operation includes not only their three adult children and his in-laws, but also a number of extended family members. “They all have pecans, too,” he said. “They all pitch in at harvest time. We do custom cracking for other people who have pecans. Our family members bring theirs here, too, and they all help on the sorting table.”
Voss Pecans was hit in July 2006 by a major windstorm. “The storm started in St. Louis on July 21,” Voss said. “The storm was about 5 miles wide, and it came right through our grove. Straight-line winds were clocked between 80 and 150 miles an hour.” The wind took down 240 trees and damaged another 200 trees that Voss expects to remove over the next 20 years.
The 2006 U.S. pecan crop was valued at $321.7 million, with New Mexico, Georgia and Texas the leading producing states. Illinois has never been one of the significant pecan-producing states, but boasts bottomlands where pecan trees can thrive. Voss said, “Our niche is that our pecans are sweeter, they’re a little smaller than some, and they’re fresher because they haven’t been sitting around in a warehouse.”
“My dad owned property near here,” Voss said, “and whenever he cleaned out timber, he never took out pecan trees. When I started with my own property about 25 years ago, I never took out pecan trees.” Voss farms about 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans with his brother, Joe Voss, and pecans produce about 15 percent of total farm income.
“We planted pecan trees in a couple of small corner areas of the property.”
Voss noted, “My wife and I would pick up the pecans always thinking there had to be a use for these, but nobody would buy them from us. When we found an automatic cracking machine and started cracking the pecans, people bought them.” Voss Pecans continues to use the Savage pecan cracking machine manufactured by Savage Equipment, Madill, Okla.
Developing the grove
About 15 years ago, Voss purchased 60 acres of timber in Kaskaskia River bottomland that included a major pecan grove. Developing the native stand of pecan trees into a productive grove was a lengthy process. The first undertaking after purchasing the 60-acre timber stand was to thin out damaged trees and, over the next few years, thin out poorly performing trees. “We always want the trees that produce the biggest nut,” Voss said.
Developing a good stand of turf was next. “We need good sod as a foundation for the tractors and to help the trees,” Voss said. After working up the soil, he seeded in red top, Kentucky bluegrass and red clover. “Red clover helps supply nitrogen and stays in only a few years, dying out in competition with bluegrass,” Voss said. Voss noted that red top is particularly good for pecan orchards because it tolerates flooding well. “Neither red top nor bluegrass gets clumpy; both grasses shut down when it gets dry in the summer and don’t compete with the trees for water.”
Voss continued to thin the grove, thinning the approximately 1,300 trees down to about 900 trees, and added improved varieties. “We have 10 improved varieties,” Voss said. “We use northern states native rootstock. Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, has a pecan breeding program, and I used their Pawnee variety, developed back in the 1950s, and Kanza, developed about 10 years ago.”
Grass is mowed twice a year throughout the grove with a height of about 6 inches at harvest time, which helps facilitate the harvest. Voss usually applies about 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre annually, with an application of about 90 pounds of nitrogen per acre in December. Voss said, “About the first of May, I visually see how much of a crop we have. If it’s a heavy crop, I apply the rest, and if it’s a short crop, I may apply less or no additional amount.”
Voss uses monitoring traps to monitor for pecan weevils that can attack pecans around August. “If we find one in the monitoring traps, we spray with Seven,” he said. He emphasized the importance of bug-free pecans that are going through the shelling process.
Commercial production increases
Before the 2006 storm, Voss Pecans production had hit 70,000 pounds in a good year. In addition to cracked pecans sold at the farm, Voss had established commercial customers in a 100-mile radius, as far north in Illinois as Springfield and into St. Louis, Mo. “At first, we visited customers to convince them we had a good product,” Voss said. Soon, word of mouth provided the best advertising for the northern pecans.
Voss purchased a Savage tree shaker and pecan cleaner. He said, “We watch the nuts opening up around the end of September or first of October, and they’re ready about 30 days after that. The hull has to spread open, and the nuts fall clean from the tree when we use the tree shaker,” Voss said. Voss noted that the tree shaker and pull-behind harvester attach to John Deere tractors used in row crop production.
He built his own pecan sizer that sorts pecans into four size groups. After going through the pecan cleaner, pecans are visually inspected on a sorting table before Voss hauls them to Justice Nut Co. in Portland, Ark. The pecans are shelled and repackaged into 1-pound packages for consumer sales, or 30-pound boxes for commercial customers. About 25 percent of the largest nuts are kept at the farm, where they are cracked and sold on-site or at farmers’ markets in Springfield or St. Louis. Voss hauls the packaged nuts back, and they are stored in below-zero temperatures in two walk-in freezers for sale throughout the year. “We’re open here at the farm November 1 to January 1,” Voss said.
Recovering from wind damage
By late fall 2006, Voss was ready to begin replacing trees and planted about 500 grafted seedling trees purchased from Stark Bros. Nursery, Louisiana, Mo. He said, “One month later, we got a flood. My neighbor uses no-till on his cornfields, and water came through the grove carrying cornstalks that pulled out about 200 trees, with 300 left standing. We potted the 200 seedlings and put them in the cooler. The seedlings are still in the cooler and look good, and we plan to replant.”
Spring 2007 looked promising. “The big trees greened up,” Voss said, “and then an April freeze hit. Our buds were out, and everything froze back. Pecan trees usually don’t produce nuts on secondary buds.”
The late-spring freeze put Voss Pecans out of production for a year, and no pecans will be available for sale until fall 2008. Voss said, “People bought all of our pecans here, and we delivered the last of our nuts to each commercial customer. They understand that farming is weather-dependent, and I think we have a good enough product that they will take us back when we have nuts again.”
Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.