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How One Missouri Couple Cracked Into Local Pecans

At McGraw Hilltop Pecan Farm just outside of St. Louis, more than 250 rows of trees are growing pecans

  • 10 min to read

When Kevin McGraw and his family first planted pecan trees in St. Charles, Missouri, in 1994, there was hardly anything but old farmhouses between their property and the Missouri River. Today, the orchard is surrounded by subdivisions; the trees are practically hidden from sight. Kevin, a dentist, and his wife, Vicky, who previously worked in medical record administration, bought 15 acres of a 50-acre farm in 1992, 10 years after Kevin opened his nearby dental practice.

“I wish we would’ve had the money to buy the whole farm. How fun would that have been?” Vicky says. The remaining land was bought up by developers within a couple of years.

The McGraws spent one year just clearing out the property before they could even think about planting. “I like to grow things," Kevin says. "I wanted to do something, but didn’t have a clue what it would be." Vicky’s father, Cal Fuss, suggested pecans. Kevin wasn't even aware that you could grow pecans in Missouri – much less that a native variety grows in the state – but after doing some research and investigating the soil, he found it would be ideal. The couple ordered about 250 Missouri native pecan trees from the Missouri Conservation Commission, planted them, and then grafted on the varieties of pecans they wanted. But it would be several years before they had anything to show for it.

That first spring, Kevin installed plastic tubes around the saplings to protect them. The following spring, they were excited when their trees started to leaf out, but within three days, deer had eaten every single leaf. After that, Kevin went out and bought fencing to protect each individual tree. As inexperienced growers, it wouldn’t be the first lesson they would learn along the way – or the last tree they’d lose. A failed attempt at fertilizing the trees resulted in the loss of about a third of the orchard. They got maybe four pecans out of the harvest that year. “We were so excited,” Vicky says.

The next year, almost another third were killed by accidentally severing roots with a hoe. “So, they’ve been replanted a few times,” Kevin laughs.

“These [trees] are some survivors,” Vicky agrees.

Pecan trees are the largest member of the hickory family and are native to parts of the U.S. and Mexico. Like walnuts, technically they’re actually a drupe: a stone fruit characterized by a fleshy outer layer, a hard inner shell and a seed within (other drupes include coffee, peaches and almonds). The trees usually grow to between 60 and 130 feet in height, and can live as long as 300 years.

Missouri’s native species, Carya illinoinensis, originally only grew in the southeastern part of the state, but according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, Native Americans helped spread it north; it now naturally occurs throughout all of Missouri except for the northwestern counties. There were more than 11,000 acres of pecan trees, native and cultivated, in Missouri as of 2012, the last year for which data is available.

Ideally, pecan trees grow in moist and well-drained soil, heavy with humus (plant and animal decompositional matter), which doesn’t appear in most of St. Charles County. That type of soil usually occurs in river bottoms; though the McGraws’ property sits on top of bluffs near the Missouri River, it has deep, well-drained loess, or silt-sized sediment, thanks to plenty of wind.

More than 75 percent of the nation’s pecans are grown in Georgia, New Mexico and Texas, and big southern nut growers tend to dry out their pecans while still in the shell in large warehouses. The nuts stay fresher longer in the shell, but they’ll also become darker and shrivel up a bit, which is why McGraw Hilltop’s pecans don’t look like what you’re used to.

The McGraws grow primarily Kanza and Faith pecans. They’re similar in size and flavor, and were bred for flavor as opposed to hardiness, yield or size alone. Both produce fairly large, smooth and light caramel-colored pecans without many wrinkles; they’re much easier to bite into than commercial pecans, puffy and almost soft.

“It’s like being a coffee drinker – the subtle nuances,” Vicky says of the flavor of Kanza and Faith pecans. “They’re different – just a little.”

The McGraws also grow Lakota, and they just grafted a Lipan, which is a particularly good fertilization match for Kanza and Lakota. Released in 2011, Lipan is a cross between Pawnee and Cheyenne. Unlike Pawnee, though, Lipan is particularly resistant to a fungus known as scab and is known for high yield and good quality, so the McGraws are hopeful.

Each variety has its pros and cons, they say – some are resistant to fungus, but aren’t as big. Others have incredible flavor but are particularly susceptible to scab. Pecans are mostly self-incompatible, meaning they need to be pollinated by a different cultivar, which prevents inbreeding, so it’s a must to have more than one variety for pollination.

“You don’t know what you’re gonna get [with native trees]. You can plant this nut, but you won’t get this nut,” Kevin says of the need for pecans to cross pollinate. “You’ll get whatever pollinated it, and the genetic diversity could be big, could be small, could taste good, taste terrible. So that’s why you graft. The native trees, a lot of them have good flavor but almost all of them are small.”

McGraw Hilltop’s trees all start with native Missouri pecan trunks; a bit of the bark is peeled away, and a small sapling of another variety, like Kanza or Faith, is attached – the graft. Eventually it will grow into one tree, and will produce pecans sooner than a tree that's grown from a seed.

Kevin and Vicky fared a bit better in their second harvest: 30 pounds of pecans, which yields less than 15 pounds of nutmeat. The next year it was 50 pounds, and then 80. Vicky and her father would dump sacks of pecans out on a table and go through them by hand to throw out the bad ones. Then Fuss would hand-crack them using a Texas Pecan Cracker – sort of like a standard nutcracker on steroids – while he watched football. You snip off each end of the pecan shell, which will then peel off and you can separate the two pecan halves.

“My dad is a worker bee,” Vicky says. “He didn’t mind doing it, but it got to the point where it was too much.”

As the McGraws harvested more and more pecans each season, they began to take them up to their friends Dan and Jan Shepherd of Shepherd Farm in Clifton Hill, Missouri, near Moberly, who run a much bigger operation and have a huge cracking and shelling facility. Kevin estimates they’ll get 6,000 or 7,000 pounds of pecans this fall, so the Shepherds’ help is essential.

The first step, though, is harvest. Near the end of October, Vicky and Kevin watch the trees in their orchard, waiting for the pecan husks to split open. The pecans, shells covered by green, oblong-shaped outer husks, grow in bunches that can become heavy enough to crack their tree branches. When enough husks have dried up and split, that means the pecans are ready to harvest. For years, Kevin whacked the branches himself with a long stick to knock pecans off the trees. Now, he hooks up a bright red metal tree shaker to his John Deere 5075 tractor and heads behind the house to the orchard. The shaker grabs either side of a tree trunk with rubber clamps and shakes the whole thing.

“It just rains down pecans and sticks and leaves,” Vicky says. “It’s violent, but it’s amazing. You can feel it in the ground.”

Kevin isn’t sure how many rows he has at this point; the pecan trees are planted 30 feet away from each other, and he reckons he’s planted about 30 or so more over the years since his original 250. After every tree has been shaken, he hires “a young person with a backpack blower” to blow away all the debris so he can collect the pecans with his Bag-A-Nut nut roller. It looks like a large brush with bristles the size of drinking straws. The fingers catch the pecans and deposit them into a basket as Kevin pushes it through the orchard. The baskets are then emptied into tubs until the pecans are ready to be cleaned.

Kevin sets up the cleaner in his driveway – it’s too tall for the large garagelike workshop – and dumps the nuts into a chute, which deposits them onto a pyramid-shaped conveyor belt. The nuts drop into the body of the cleaner, where they’re hit with a brush, a fan blows debris out and the nuts come out a flat conveyor belt on the other side. At least two people stand on either side of the belt and pick out the bad pecans – ones that have turned black or have visible holes in them – before they reach the end of the line and fall into a bag or bucket. Usually, it’s Vicky and her dad, and maybe another two friends or relatives, while Kevin is out in the orchard with the Bag-A-Nut.

After they’ve all been cleaned, the McGraws store the pecans in nylon bags (think onion bags) in the workshop, away from the elements, with fans blowing on the bags so they can dry for a few weeks. They’re then taken up to the facility in Clifton Hill for cracking, shelling and further drying, followed by freezing to keep them fresh (otherwise the oil-heavy pecans would go rancid within a few weeks). Kevin usually takes off Thursday and Friday from his dental practice for a few weeks during harvest season, making for about 12 total days of intense labor.

This year was the first time the McGraws have sprayed fungicide – which only touches the husks, not the nuts themselves – after they lost half the Faith crop last year to scab. The husks and nuts were just completely black, thanks to a wetter-than-average July.

The McGraws estimate they’ll lose anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of their yield each year to fungus, deer, crows and other critters. The orchard also includes some Gala and Fuji apple trees and a few pear trees, but they agree that fruits are much more difficult to grow than pecans.

“It’s fun to do pecans because they’re a little more forgiving. If you don’t get to the fruit [in time], it’s done,” Vicky says. “But with pecans, they’ll wait for you a bit.”

Kevin and Vicky breeze around their 15-acre orchard, which also features a small lake, their fruit trees and two rows of grapevines, in their Kawasaki Mule, an easy-to-drive 4x4 ATV that Kevin traded in his motorcycle for.

“The first row [of grapes] is Chambourcin, and they’re very susceptible to fungus,” Kevin says, pointing from the Mule. “I didn’t get any this year because I didn’t spray the orchard until the nuts were ready to be sprayed, and by then, the grapes were ruined. The second row is Norton, and you can see they’re not susceptible to fungus.”

The row of Norton is positively full; Vicky says they made 10 bottles of wine last season, called It’s Not Bad.

“Because that’s what the neighbors said: ‘It’s not bad!’” Vicky says, and they both laugh as they cruise away from the vines. “I go, ‘OK, that’s the name. I’m using it!”

Kevin pulls up to a recent Kanza pecan tree graft that was planted just this spring. The rootstock is about two years old; it’s doubled in size since it was first planted to about 4 feet tall, but it’s still surrounded by chicken wire for protection. Vicky exclaims at a cluster of two or three pecan husks on the “baby Kanza.”

“Oh, they’re almost out!” she says, pointing at the husks’ seams that will soon split open. “See that little guy? What a crowd pleaser. Look at that!” Kevin nods appreciatively and steps on the Mule’s gas pedal.

The McGraws check out a few more tree grafts, pleased with their progress, and Kevin spots a broken branch that he’ll have to come back out and prop up to try and save the nuts, plus a friendly hawk looking for squirrels. The orchard’s perimeter is dotted with a few small camouflage-covered tents where Fuss, even at age 93, will sit for hours watching out for squirrels.

“He likes coming out here; he just thinks it’s hilarious,” Vicky says. “He looks at these trees and just giggles because he remembers when they were so tiny.”

As the orchard is set to produce more and more pecans each year, Kevin plans to “slow down, not retire” at his dental practice in the next few years. Their two daughters are grown up and out of the house, and though they both help out, the McGraws say they aren’t interested in taking over the orchard. Despite the labor involved – and lack of profit – and how developed the land all around their farm has become in the past few decades, Kevin says they’ll probably continue growing pecans until they simply can’t anymore.

“And who knows how long that’s gonna be,” Vicky says. “I would hate for it to – one day it’s going to be sad, because it’ll probably get a whole bunch of houses put on it. But we’re trying to stave [that] off. Keep a little pocket.”

Kevin parks the Mule in the driveway, and the couple heads inside their house with a pecan that fell off the tree. It has a few black spots – scab – but sometimes a nut can survive that, Kevin says. In the kitchen, he slices it open with a chef’s knife. The nutmeat, which at this point should be milky white with all of its membranes intact, is a putrid brown. “That’s why the tree dropped it,” Kevin says. “That’s why the tree got rid of it – tree knows something is wrong.”

In the dining room, Vicky has been preparing shipments for local restaurants. The table is covered in 99 pounds of three-pound bags destined for Todd Geisert’s Farm to You Market in Washington, Missouri. A 30-pound box sits on a side table, ready for Nathaniel Reid Bakery in Kirkwood, Missouri. The pecans are also used at Seed Sprout Spoon in St. Louis, where they’re chopped up and sprinkled over waffles, as well as Five Bistro in St. Louis, and Pie Oh My in Maplewood, Missouri. The McGraws first began selling jars to patients at the dental practice when the harvest was too big to use themselves or give away. Last year, it became clear that they had surpassed even that plan, and Vicky began dropping off samples to chefs and restaurants.

“That was one of those things – I gave Nathaniel Reid a bag of nuts and some information, and he called and said yes,” she says. Reid uses McGraw Hilltop pecans in his chocolate chip-pecan cookies, chocolate-pecan bark and in pecan caramel for his famous Amber tart. “Everything is great there, and he’s so nice. I love that guy,” Vicky adds.

Vicky says she never tires of cooking and baking with pecans. She makes a particularly good pecan pie, as well as candied pecans with cayenne pepper, sugar and salt. Kevin prefers them raw or toasted – and of course, in Vicky’s pecan pie.

“It’s not like I’m crazy about pecans,” he admits. “I planted them because I didn’t have to take care of them that much, and it’s fun to look at the orchard. Orchards are just pretty.”

Vicky lovingly rolls her eyes. “We have a little Facebook page, and if I try a recipe and it’s really good, I’ll put it on there. I love sweets – what can I say? I don’t get sick of [pecans]. I love ‘em.”

For the McGraws, it’s extremely rewarding to be outside, working with their hands and growing food on their land. They say it’s just as invigorating to see how chefs are taking their pecans to the next level.

“I think the most interesting thing is the fact that those are native Missouri rootstock,” Vicky says of the trees in their orchard. “All those trees love it here, and then are improved varieties, which [yield] great-tasting, huge pecans. And it’s really fun to see what restaurants and bakeries do with them. It’s really very gratifying. I love it when somebody says, ‘I did this with your pecans.’ Fabulous!”

McGraw Hilltop Pecan Farm, St. Charles, Missouri,

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