Memories From the Pecan Orchard

Hard work in the pecan orchards led to great rewards at the holiday supper table.

  • The author's brother found an easy, albeit dangerous, method for getting the pecans down from the trees.
    Photo by Dennis Auth
  • Cracking pecans while at work in the orchard became easy work.
    Photo by Dennis Auth

For many of the cool autumn weekends of my childhood, my family made the trip to southern Georgia to help my grandmothers harvest pecans on their rural farms. Grandmother Maggie Lanier lived beside an orchard of seedlings just outside of the scenic town Metter, a Mayberry-like place northwest of Savannah. My maternal grandmother, Ona Jarriel, lived on the other side of the interstate, down a dirt road nestled between the tiny towns of Collins and Cobbtown. She had about 20 Schley pecan trees that produced hundreds of pounds of pecans each fall.

My siblings, cousins, and I were not the most willing of participants for the back-breaking chore of picking up thousands of the smooth brown nuts, but someone had to do it. Both of my elderly grandmothers relied on the extra income generated by selling pecans on the South Georgia nut market to pay their bills. We soldiered through the work, though we moaned and groaned a lot about the task.

We moved from tree to tree, plucking the nuts from the ground and collecting them in the hems of our shirts before depositing our hoards into buckets placed nearby. After we had filled several buckets, we transferred the contents to large burlap sacks and loaded them into the back of our uncle’s pickup truck. To break the monotony of the work, we would occasionally hurl nuts at one another, and yes, pecans can and will leave welts on backs and rear ends if flung at high speeds.

I remember cocking my head toward the leafy canopy and seeing clusters of open husks, revealing pecans that refused to let go. Our family seldom used mechanical tree shakers to empty the trees. Instead, my brother scrambled up the trunks like a little monkey and bounced along the mighty limbs. I can still hear my mother’s warning call. “Be careful up there!” she would holler, followed by the jolting rustle of leaves and the gentle thuds of pecans falling onto the plowed dirt like heavy hailstones.

Fresh, raw pecans are a delicacy like no other, best enjoyed while standing directly under the tree they’ve fallen from. Early on I learned the art of cracking pecans in my hands by placing two nuts side by side in my palm and squeezing my fist with great force, like I was gripping a grenade. The goal was to crack two complete halves from their shells and pop them in my mouth without any of the bitter shell attached.

During the winter months, my mother always kept a big bowl of pecans — pronounced in my family as PEE-kans, rather than pi-kahns — and a spring-loaded nutcracker on the hearth, inviting us to sit down for a few minutes, crack out a few, and savor one of the classic tastes of the South while warming our bones next to a glowing fire.

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