PECAN CITY, Ga. — Strolling through his vast groves of shapely pecan trees, Harry Willson lovingly raps the dark bark of one.
"I'm older than these trees," said Willson, 67. "I was born in 1920, and these trees were planted in 1925. My father bought this grove in 1926, and we've been at it ever since."
At Willson's 1,000-acre Sunnyland Farms and other groves throughout the region, pickers and shakers--tractor-like contraptions with rubber arms that literally hug the tree and bring down the nuts--are into high gear as the annual pecan harvest, which can last until Christmas, is under way.
Near Pecan Capital
Pecan City is only a few pecan trees from Albany, the self-titled "pecan capital of the world" and host of October's National Pecan Festival.
"A lot of cities say they're the pecan capital of the world," said festival organizer Ellen Pearlman. "But we can prove it."
Figures show Georgia is the leading pecan-producing state, providing more than 42% of the national crop in 1986, and more than 60% of the state's pecan trees are in the Albany area. That translates to more than 75 million pounds of pecans harvested on the plains of southwest Georgia.
As with any crop that dominates an area, pecans have taken on a romantic image for folks in Albany. To show their affection, Albany pecan lovers at last year's festival baked the world's biggest pecan pie, which turned out more like pecan soup but was tasty just the same.
No matter, Okmulgee, Okla.--which also claims a stake in the pecan capital category--surpassed the short-lived record with an even bigger pie.
Said Willson, "You really do get attached to these nuts. I look at pecans as the nut. The others are all competing for second place in my opinion."
And how do you pronounce the nut's name anyway? With emphasis on the first syllable or second? And is it pe-con or pe-can?
What Mama Taught
"It all depends on what your mama taught you to say," Willson said diplomatically.
The business of growing pecans traditionally has been a long-term proposition--it takes about 15 years from seedling to respectable production--but it is a lucrative endeavor.
However, Bucky Geer, president of the Georgia Pecan Growers Assn., said pecan farmers have run into the same problems as other farmers.
"Up until recent years, we've fared pretty well," said Geer, who works 1,800 acres of pecan groves in the Albany area. "But pecans are facing the same situation as other farm commodities. We're selling at prices now that we were selling at 10 years ago, while our cost of production has gone up twofold or threefold over that same time. But we've been marginally profitable, put it that way."
The Willsons have carried Sunnyland Farms beyond the "marginally profitable" stage and made a bump on the map for Pecan City. "Population 50, counting all the cats and dogs," Willson said. "There's not much here, but 'Pecan City' looks good in our ads."
From a small garage operation 20 years ago, Sunnyland Farms has become a major mail-order business, shipping worldwide everything from roasted pecans to pecan brittle and pralines made in the sweet-smelling Sunnyland kitchens.
Although he will not divulge figures, Willson acknowledged a mailing list "in the six figures."
"This business has been very good," Willson said. "We keep it growing every year. But it's still a family operation. My wife runs the mail-order business, my son runs the farm and his wife is in charge of wholesale sales. I do whatever's left over."
Willson said pecans, grown only along the southern rim of the United States from North Carolina to California, have gained acceptance in recent years in the Northern reaches.