LUMBERTON —The word “fall” traces its origins to the old English word “feallan,” which means “to fall from a height.” It’s the season that takes us from summer into winter, when night comes sooner and the days grow cooler.
But in the Inner Banks region of Robeson County, marked by good farming soil and a temperate climate, the temperature is not all that is falling. Swift breezes have recently been followed by the sound of thuds, bangs and splats — a sign that it’s pecan season, and that there is a good harvest.
“It’s been what we call an ‘on’ year — this is the year that they hit with maximum yield,” said Elbie Powers, president of the North Carolina Pecan Growers Association.
Pecans, marked by their brown shells accented with swatches of black, are produced by “alternate-bearing” trees, which produce well one year at the expense of the years to follow.
“One year it will be loaded with nuts,” Powers said. “But the following year there will be almost none. The next year there will be a few, and then the third year, there will be a heavy crop load.”
As the sky falls in Robeson County just in time for Thanksgiving, it hits upon a long history.
Pecans were a staple in the American Indian diet. American Indians pressed them for oils, ground them into meal to thicken stews, cooked them with beans, roasted them for hunting trips, and gave them their name.
The word “pecan” traces its origins to an Algonquin word describing “all nuts requiring a stone to crack.”
According to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences, the harvest time for pecans is from early November to late December. On average, the state produces between 4 million and 5 million pounds of in-shell pecans per year.
While farmers have irrigated orchards to ensure a fruitful output, some home-owners just get lucky.
Powers calls their yield “yard nuts.”
“Yard nuts come from trees that are not irrigated and not fertilized and typically have pretty poor quality nut,” he said. “If you pick one up and half of the nut meat is good while the other half is shriveled up, that’s from a lack of water.”
Robeson County is littered with signs advertising to either buy yard nuts from sellers or to sell them to buyers. Some are in front of businesses, while others greet the walkway of homes.
To ensure healthy nut meat, Powers suggests homeowners water the tree, keeping the soil moist all the way to its drip-line, which is as far as the fruit falls.
He suggests picking the in-shell pecan off of the ground as soon as possible, as it begins to deteriorate the longer it sits. Once picked, pecans can be stored — shelled or unshelled — in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to nine months, or in the freezer for up to two years.
For a special Thanksgiving treat, pecans can be toasted in the oven. To do so, spread them on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, douse them in melted butter and bake for another 10 minutes.
“You may need to bake a little more than that, or a little less depending on how much moisture is in the nut,” Powers said. “They taste better as they cool.”
According to Mack Johnson, the Extension Horticulture agent for the Cooperative Extension in Robeson County, pecans are tasty and healthy in moderation.
“Pecans contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and E, calcium and potassium,” Johnson said. “They are also a high quality source of fiber and protein. Pecans are sodium free and a 1-ounce serving has about 196 calories. They are full of the healthy fats.”
Pecan trees, which can grow to the height of 150 feet, can be identified by one large leaf made up of smaller ones called compound leaves.
“Each contains nine to 17 leaflets,” Johnson said, adding that there are subtle differences among the many varieties.
Powers said the Cape Fear, which is native to the state, does best in Robeson County.
North Carolina is one of the top 10 pecan-producing states in the country, behind Georgia, which is first, followed by New Mexico and Texas.
“You can’t buy an island offshore with pecan production,” Powers said of the nut that sells in-shell for up to $2 a pound. “But you sure can be pretty comfortable.”