A place for pecans
Nov./Dec. 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Toni Scott
Photos by Richard Green
Groovy nuts gain fans in California and beyond
Carmel Valley chef Jeffrey Thompson features California pecans in his restaurant dishes, in addition to selling full jars of the spiced nuts.
Chef Jeffrey Thompson initially saw pecans as a simple topper to the salads he served at his Carmel Valley restaurant.
The chef would sprinkle the mixed-green medleys with pecans that he had seasoned according to his own recipe. Customers at Jeffrey's Grill and Catering enjoyed the salad—but were enamored with the pecans.
"People just loved them and couldn't get enough," said Thompson's employee Ellen Ladd. "We would put them in Saran Wrap so people could take them home."
Thompson soon realized that the popularity of the pecans called for a more prominent way to sell the native U.S. nut, and he started exploring the possibility of buying in bulk to season and then package them. Like most people, Thompson thought pecans were grown primarily in the South. He quickly discovered that California is also a prime place for pecan production.
"I had no idea up until then that pecans were growing right here in the Central Valley," Thompson said. "There was no need to get them from out of the state."
That was more than six years ago. Thompson now buys about 14,000 pounds of California pecans a year. He seasons them in his restaurant kitchen with salt, cayenne pepper and sugar and then serves them atop salads, on cheese plates and in entrées that range from French toast to pork chops. He also sells jars of the spiced pecans online (www.jeffreysgrillandcatering.com) and at his local farmers market.
"Pecans have these wonderful grooves … so the seasoning really gets in the pecan itself," Thompson said. "It allows for a lot more flavor."
Beyond his product—and, of course, the iconic pecan pie—Thompson has found that pecans in general are attractive nuts to customers and offer significant health benefits.
Thompson's seasoned pecans are sweet and salty, with a kick of heat.
"Pecans are incredibly nutritious," he said. They contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals, according to the National Pecan Shellers Association, and are high in healthy, unsaturated fat that can lower "bad" cholesterol and preserve "good" cholesterol.
Cracking the pecan market
All of the pecans that Thompson buys for his restaurant and his spiced pecan business come from Hamilton Ranches in Visalia, the state's largest processor of pecans, according to Blake Houston, director of operations and sales. Houston said about 3 million pounds of California pecans run through the family-operated facility every year.
While some of that total comes from the company's own 20 acres of pecans, most of the nuts arrive from the dozens of growers who live up and down the state, from Red Bluff to Bakersfield. Once shelled, dehydrated and sometimes chopped, the pecans are sold to restaurants and bakeries, or wind up on grocery store shelves under Hamilton Ranches' own label.
Garry Vance, who grows pecans in Tehama County with his wife Ginger, below, attests that "the freshness and quality of a California pecan is unlike anything else."
The ranch's roots are in nut farming, with owner Jim Hamilton getting his start with walnuts. Nearly 30 years ago, he decided to expand his venture to pecans, building a dehydrator and huller, which removes the nuts' shells. This infrastructure and innovation, and similar processing advances other producers employed, helped put California on the map for pecan production once commercial planting started in the 1960s.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 14 states grow pecans commercially. Georgia consistently leads the nation, but California has been climbing up the list, with growers here producing 5 million pounds in 2013, according to the USDA. California currently ranks eighth in the nation.
Houston said the increase in pecan production could be attributed in part to the success growers here have had with walnuts and almonds. The Golden State is the nation's top walnut and almond producer, giving growers the opportunity to transfer their expertise with those tree nuts to pecans.
"In California, pecans are very similar to walnuts," Houston said. "The cultivation practices have been mastered for walnuts. Now, those have been brought to pecans. With similar nutrition plans and cultivation practices, prime soil and a great growing season, we are able to grow a larger, brighter, healthier nut."
Shaking up a new opportunity
Garry Vance is one California pecan producer who is committed to growing a superior nut.
Vance, who farms in the Tehama County community of Corning, was formerly a trucker, spending two decades hauling logs before purchasing a pecan orchard in 1996. With his wife Ginger, Vance oversees 105 acres of pecans, and owns a dehydrator and small processing plant that he built on the property in 2002 to dry and hull his and other area growers' pecans. Though some stay local, Vance also sends pecans to Hamilton Ranches.
In California, pecans are harvested in the fall, and come October and November, the Vances can be found in a whirlwind of yellow leaves as they harvest their pecans, tree by tree, row by row.
After a few spurts and spasms from a shaker, driven by Ginger Vance, the arms of the harvest equipment wrap around each tree and begin trembling, bringing a shower of leaves and nuts down in a matter of seconds. The pecans are swept from the ground and brought to the processing facility, where they are sorted, washed and dried before heading into bins to be stored or shipped to Visalia to be shelled. Each tree on the Vance ranch can produce up to 40 pounds of pecans.
Since Vance first purchased his land, literally shaking up his career, he has seen pecans gain popularity as snack products and in restaurants such as Thompson's. And that's fine by Vance, who remains dedicated to bringing exceptional pecans to people in California and beyond.
"I want consumers to have the ability to purchase fresh, California pecans and really see the difference," he said. "The freshness and the quality of a California pecan is unlike anything else."
Did you know?
One of the nation's best-known native nut trees, the pecan can trace its roots in American cuisine back to the 16th century. Other fun facts:
- U.S. farmers grow about 80 percent of the world's pecan crop.
- Pecan trees usually range in height from 70 to 100 feet, but some grow as tall as 150 feet or higher.
- There are more than 1,000 varieties of pecans. Popular varieties in California include the Apache, Barton, Bradley, Choctaw, Comanche, Shawnee, Sioux and Wichita.
- It would take 5,640 pecan halves to equal the weight of a standard watermelon.
- Naturally occurring antioxidants in pecans may help contribute to heart health and disease prevention. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both farmed pecans.
Source: National Pecan Shellers Association