Nuts About Oklahoma
Learn about Oklahoma’s pecan pioneers.
Photo by Asya - stock.adobe.com
As an important Oklahoma agricultural product, pecans don’t make the top ten. But for Oklahoma cooks, these popular nuts rate high.
Before European exploration, there was no such thing as pecan pie. Pecan trees, native only to North America, were known only to indigenous people. The trees, growing prolifically through the central part of North America into Mexico were called “pakan” by northern Indians, an Algonquin word meaning “nuts so hard they require a stone for cracking.”
As European settlement and trade with Native Americans grew, interest in pecans grew, too. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington planted pecans at their homes. Now pecans have even been to space—they were the first fresh food sent with astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission.
For years, pecans were considered a backyard pleasure; finding native pecan trees provided treats for the picking. Bill Landgraf, one of Oklahoma’s pecan pioneers, got started that way.
A cattle rancher, Landgraf had a number of pecan trees growing in a tangle of other vegetation along creeks on his property. He and his son Scott enjoyed time together gathering the pecans. It was a casual hobby until Bill Landgraf realized it could actually be a cash crop.
“There’s no such thing as a true native variety; every native pecan tree is unique.”
- Diane Couch, Couch Orchard
In the ‘60s he began grafting other varieties onto the native rootstock. In the ‘70s, he began retail sales more deliberately. Scott Landgraf and his wife Janice, Red River Valley Rural Electric Association members, also began planting aggressively. In addition to his property and the parcel he inherited from his father, the Landgrafs now have 5,000 to 6,000 trees.
Managing a pecan orchard is no easy task.
“For us, I guess, the biggest challenge is to have consistent production. I have to work hard in doing things to try to keep the trees confused,” Scott Landgraf says.
Pecan trees have a natural cycle with good production about every other year. Between shaking some of the green pecans off in August and planned pruning, he is able to keep a more stable production.
Water is another issue. Red River Valley supplies the electricity to keep the pumps going when irrigation is needed.
“Weather is paramount. The excessive rainfall of the past few years has been very hard to overcome,” Landgraf says.
Anne Casey Jones, Cimarron Electric Cooperative member, agrees.
“It really hurts when you’ve done everything you can and the weather gods just do you in—but that’s agriculture,” she says.
Jones had never planned to be a pecan farmer. Her mother, Jean Anne Casey, and her aunt, Virginia Merritt Autry, inherited the Hennessey farm from their parents. When Anne Jones’ mother died in 2016, Jones moved back from Atlanta to Oklahoma to help her aunt with their Centennial Farm.
Jones’ grandparents planted 13 varieties of pecans suggested by OSU in the 1980s. “Newer varieties have more advantages,” Jones says. “We had an early freeze in October and it froze the shucks with the nuts inside. Newer varieties are more resistant to scab and grow faster; they bloom after the last spring frost and mature before they freeze in the fall. We started with about 1,200 trees on 40 acres. Due to ice storms, wind and drought, I’m down to about 650 trees.”
Pecan trees are monoecious—they have both male and female parts. Jones says the parts mature at different times, so they do not self-pollinate but require proximity to different varieties with different blooming schedules. Wind is the primary factor in pollination.
While the Landgrafs have a large retail business, Jones sells only a small portion of her production to the public. The rest go to an accumulator—sort of like an elevator for grain, but for nuts. Nuts can be sold in the shell, cracked, cracked and blown (most of the shells and extraneous material is removed), or totally shelled and packaged. Because of USDA regulations, packaged pecans must be sanitized and packaged by an approved facility.
Couch Orchard in Luther, another of Oklahoma’s oldest orchards, was planted by Gordon Couch in the early ‘60s. The orchard now consists of between 600 and 700 trees, including about 30 native trees.
“I have had lots of tree training,” says business manager Diane Couch. “One year we had a hard freeze and lost all but nine trees in our newer orchard—killed to the ground.”
The next year, they started from the ground up, grafting a selected variety of scionwood to the sprouts that came up from the live roots.
She explained that grafting is the only way to get varietal production.
“There’s no such thing as a true native variety; every native pecan tree is unique,” she says.
With her orchard so close to the Oklahoma City metro area, come November 15, almost by instinct, customers find their way to Couch’s. So many people come that the town of Luther has capitalized on the traffic by creating the Luther Pecan Festival—this year on November 21.
For those who are serious about growing their own pecans, a call to Central Electric Cooperative member Becky Carroll, associate extension specialist, fruit and pecans in the Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department at Oklahoma State University, is step No. 1. Since 1997, OSU has offered a pecan management class, which meets monthly from February to October.