Who: Tucker Pecan Company
What: Southern Pecans
Where: Montgomery, Alabama
For more than 60 years, Montgomery's Tucker Pecan Company has been providing people all over the South and the country with premium pecans and pecan products. It all begins with a bright-green orb hanging from a tree branch.
Tracts of land lined with rows of pecan trees — their leaf-covered branches forming a canopy that blocks out most of the sun — are common sights on rural highways in the South. These shady havens are called groves (if naturally occurring) or orchards (if planted), and they are filled with decades-old, tall (as high as 140 feet) and thick trees that can live and produce pecans for up to a century.
Unlike some fruit trees, which give up their bounty fairly quickly, most pecan varieties take at least five years to produce nuts. “We now have some kinds that produce in about five to seven years, but the oldest and one of the most popular varieties, the Stuart, takes 12 to 15 years,” says David Little, president of the company. The different varieties also have different meat yields. Small pecans, like some species or those from younger trees, may only be 40 to 42 percent meat, while the Schley, a thin-shelled variety, can be as much as 58 to 61 percent meat. “That’s most of what I sell in-shell,” says Little. “They are really oily and so good.”
From the Tree
Like any crop, pecans are vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature. “The weather matters a lot,” says Little. “You of course need rain, but when you have a really wet year, that brings on diseases. We had that happen last year.”
In autumn, it’s time to “pick” pecans — the harvest starts around mid-October. Farmers know it’s time when the green outer hull of each nut opens. They use a machine to shake the trees, causing the pecans to fall to the ground where another machine, a sweeper, picks them up. From there, the nuts go to a cleaning shed, where bursts of air blow off dirt and leaves. Next, they go to a sheller, like Tucker Pecan.
Down to Business
Once at Tucker’s facility — which is right behind its retail store — the pecans are in the capable hands of one of the company’s employees, like Willie James Murphy (nicknamed Rabbit), who pours them into a cracker, an aptly named device that can crack a pound of pecans a minute. “It’s a basic machine, really; we’ve got several old ones — more than 45 years old, and one that’s over 50 — that are still working just like they did brand new,” says Little. Now open, they’re moved to the sheller that shimmies and shakes the pecans loose from the broken pieces of shell.
These pecans may be sold as-is or run through a giant oven to dry-roast. “We can do about 300 pounds of pecans at a time in there,” says Little. “They roast for about 25 minutes and then cool for another 20 minutes before getting salted.”
Some of the shelled pecans also go to Tucker Pecan’s kitchen, where they’re combined with chocolate and caramel and other sweet ingredients to create an array of pecan-based candies.
The processes may seem simple, but the business is complicated by the ups and downs of yearly harvests and swings in the market.
According to David, competition from foreign countries is the major threat currently affecting Tucker Pecan and other shelling businesses. “China is buying so, so many pecans right now,” he says. “It’s driving the price way up. It’s good for the farmers, but bad for me.”
But price fluctuations and other unknowns are a part of any business, especially one tied to a crop, and they haven’t taken the satisfaction out of David’s work, a job he’s been enjoying for 22 years now. You can sense his passion for pecans in even casual conversation. “Pecans are just an amazing product; they’re delicious and good for you,” he says. “You can use them in a whole lot of ways that you can’t use almonds or walnuts. They’re the best-tasting nut there is. Get one fresh off the tree — there’s nothing better than that.”
Quick Questions for David Little
1. Where does Tucker Pecan get its pecans?
Always from the Southeast, from Alabama and Georgia.
2. How many shelled pecans does Tucker Pecan sell each year?
Approximately 120,000 pounds.
3. What else does Tucker Pecan do with pecans?
We sell some in-shell, and we have our roasted and salted pecans, as well as a wide variety of flavored pecans and pecan candies.
4. How much candy does Tucker Pecan sell annually?
Approximately 100,000 pounds.
5. How can folks get Tucker Pecan pecans and pecan candies?
If they're in our area, they can stop in our retail store in downtown Montgomery. If not, they can visit our website to order from us. We do a large mail-order business.