Nuts about Missouri pecans

Mid-Missouri delicacy is a favorite of all Missourians, including
farmers and politicians
Wednesday, August 27, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:35 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Although Missouri is known for its smaller variety of pecans because of the shorter growing season, the state is also home to the world’s largest pecan, a concrete replica weighing in at 12,000 pounds.

The massive nut is displayed in front of James Pecan Farms in Brunswick, which holds a pecan festival every October and is home to Missouri’s only pecan museum.

But bigger doesn’t mean better. Because the oil content is lower, large, southern pecans are poorly-filled and drier than northern pecans. Lisa Brown, a marketing consultant for Missouri Northern Pecan Growers L.L.C. said Missouri pecans are “sweeter and more intensely flavored” because of the higher oil content.

The smaller nuts are actually the “original” or “native” variety once harvested by Osage Ntive Americans hundreds of years ago. Brown described them as a type of “heirloom nut” since they existed before explorers settled the land. Pecans in the South are larger, hybridized versions of the original nut.

Loyle Byrd, a Bates County pecan producer, conducted an independent study in the 1970s to find out why his Missouri nuts tasted better than national varieties. He sent his pecans to a lab and discovered that the smaller nuts had an oil content of 73 percent, while larger Georgia nuts had an oil content closer to 60 percent.

“They’re not so dry like some of the bigger pecans, and that’s a fact,” James said. “Missouri pecans have more oil. And it’s the good kind of oil, the kind that’s good for your heart.”

Brown explained that the American Heart Association’s Step-1 Heart Healthy diet reduces the good kind of cholesterol along with the bad. Since they contain monounsaturated oils, adding a handful of the nuts to a daily diet can help one maintain the “good” kind of cholesterol while still lowering the “bad” kind. Since Missouri pecans have a higher percentage of monounsaturated oil, they are even more beneficial than national varieties.

But Missouri’s pecans are still a rare delicacy. The state produces only about 1 percent of the nation’s pecans.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has a penchant for this rare Missouri treat. Brown recalled how a private chef from Washington, D.C., contacted the Missouri Northern Pecan Growers about a month ago in search of native pecans. He requested that the nuts be air-mailed as soon as possible. The chef explained to her that his employer had invited a special guest for dinner who loved Missouri pecans. She later learned that the special guest was Ashcroft.

Although the local treat still can’t be found in the nation’s capital, five farmers in Vernon County began Missouri Northern Pecan Growers three years ago because they wanted to develop a larger market for their product. “Before, you couldn’t go to the supermarket and get sweet, delicious Missouri pecans,” Brown said.

She explained that, now, at least 50 farmers sell their pecans to Missouri Northern Pecan Growers, which then sells the pecans directly to about 400 supermarkets around the Midwest. In Columbia, they can be purchased at supermarkets like Schnucks, Clover’s and Hy-Vee.

“When we first opened, our corporate manager recommended that we carry the Missouri pecans because they had great luck with them in Kansas City,” said Tim Lugar, Hy-Vee produce manager. “So we started to carry them and we’ve had great luck with them, too.”

Lugar said that there is little difference in price between Missouri pecans and out-of-state pecans.

“They’re pretty similar in price, but the quality is much better, so you’re getting more for your money,” he said. Missouri pecans sell for $6.99 for a 14-ounce container at Hy-Vee.

Lugar also explained that some Hy-Vee customers prefer pecans from Missouri over other varieties. “When we happen to run out of them, customers ask specifically for them,” he said. “So they must be a big hit.”

Peggy Jean’s Pies, 1605 Chapel Hill Road, includes Wilson’s Missouri pecans in its recipes for pecan pie and the chocolate bourbon pecan pie because the Wilsons are family friends of the owners, manager Julie Brown said.

“I think they have more of a nutty flavor than the store bought ones,” she said. “They have a fresher taste.”

Farms in Missouri can successfully accommodate the pecans because the trees flourish in deep, fertile soils near rivers. A fully grown pecan tree reaches a height of about 70 feet with a spread greater than 80 feet, according to William Reid, a research and extension horticulturist in Missouri and Kansas for nut crops.

“These trees are huge,” he said. “One pecan tree can take up almost half an acre.”

Pecan trees also live a very long time. Reid explained that the pecan trees planted by Thomas Jefferson at his Virginia home in the early 1800s are still alive today, 200 years later.

Heavy-duty farm equipment is needed to harvest the nuts from such massive trees. Brown explained that first a special tractor attachment called a “shaker” vibrates the tree trunks, causing nuts to fall from the branches. Next, a “picker” machine’s long rubber fingers are pulled behind a tractor in order to gather the fallen nuts from the ground. Afterwards, the nuts are separated from any rocks or sticks and then cleaned and packaged within the pecan plant.

“What you’re buying in Missouri, you’re buying number one fresh,” said Reid.

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