A Different Kind of Local Harvest
Story and Photography by Summer Miller
Last week Charlie Willnerd decided not to harvest pecans. Instead the few nuts that linger in the oval pod clusters of four or five will dangle from the trees’ sagging limbs and eventually succumb to the squirrels. Their feast, however, is not Charlie’s famine.
Twin Springs Pecans, based just outside of Bennet, Nebraska, is a small family business and the only single-source commercial pecan growing company in the state. It’s not the typical corn and soybean farm Nebraskans are used to, and for Charlie, that’s kind of the point.
If anything, the six-foot-two-inch farmer is a pragmatist and a calculated risk taker. Right out of college he entered the farm and ranch mortgage division in the insurance industry and that’s where he stayed for more than three decades. It’s also where he first became interested in specialty crops, and more specifically, pecans.
In 2004 a trip to New Mexico piqued Charlie’s interest in pecan growing, and, as luck would have it, he knew a hobby grower not far from him in Bennet. In the early 1990s, Stan and Dorothy Matzkey planted nearly nine acres of their 70-acre property with Northern pecan cultivars, which create a smaller nut with a higher oil content than its Southern cousin. It also means the nuts, for the most part, can handle a colder climate, although to what degree remains a discovery process. In 2006, Charlie and his family sought Stan’s advice when planting their own 20 acres on a farm in Firth, Nebraska. Then in 2010, Stan approached Charlie to lease and eventually purchase the land he and his wife had cultivated. After a few years, Charlie eventually agreed to the arrangement and began Twin Springs Pecans.
“If it weren’t for the Matzkeys this [business] wouldn’t have happened,” Charlie said as he walked through an orchard of trees planted in near-perfect rows with white paint covering the bulk of their trunks.
When everyone around you grows corn and soybeans, that means everyone around you has equipment to help harvest corn and soybeans, they have knowledge about corn and soybeans, and they can help and support each other with those crops. It’s part of being good neighbors. If, however, you are the only farmer growing pecans and no one else has the equipment or know-how to tend to or harvest pecans, then the road to building a successful specialty crop business can be a bit tricky.
“Specialty growers are often without community. Neighbors can’t contribute to shared knowledge, they don’t have equipment, and where are you going to sell your product once you harvest it? You can’t just load up the truck and take it to the [grain] elevator,” Charlie explained.
While the USDA does provide some resources through grants or beginning farmer-training programs, many specialty growers including Charlie have to navigate state- and microclimate-specific issues, and the only way to figure it out is old-fashioned trial and error. It’s a good thing Charlie is the kind of man who likes a challenge.
It typically takes 8 to 10 years after grafting the trees to see a fruitful harvest. The Firth farm has yet to produce fruit, and 2015 marks what would’ve been the fifth harvest for the Bennet farm. Like all fruit orchards the biggest threat to a successful harvest is hail or an early warm up with a late frost. Unfortunately, a spring storm stole most of the blossoms from the trees and significantly reduced this season’s nut crop.
“It’s possible to grow pecans up here,” Charlie said. “We have weather events like any other place that you just have to deal with. It’s part of farming. It’s Mother Nature and it’s just part of the business.”
Hoping to outmaneuver Mother Nature, Charlie and his family painted the trunks on some of their trees white. The idea is to keep the trees cool for as long as possible. He hopes this will force the trees to bloom later in the spring, saving the harvest from a late frost, but he will have to wait until next season’s harvest to find out if it works.
What started with an idea has now become a family business. With his daughter, Sarah Ferdico, and his son, Dave Willnerd, helping whenever and wherever they are needed.
“Times change. Even though corn and soybeans are traditional crops in this area, other crops are possible for commercial viability,” Charlie said from inside the cab of his silver Dodge pickup truck on a cool fall morning. “I’m of the belief that change is good. Farming is always going to change along with everything else. Less than 40 acres of planted ground isn’t huge, but for our family and our situation it might be a good hedge for us in the long term.”
How to Store Nuts:
It’s best to store nuts in the refrigerator or freezer because of their high oil content.
Where to Find Twin Springs Pecans:
You can order pecans—whole in the shell or shelled—directly from Twin Springs via the web at TwinSpringsPecans.com or by calling 402.788.2870. During the farmers market season you can find them at the Old Cheney Road Farmers Market and the Haymarket Farmers Market in Lincoln and the Village Pointe Farmers Market in Omaha.
Summer Miller is a freelance writer and author whose work has appeared in Grit, Saveur, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Edible Omaha and Edible Feast. As of late, she’s been promoting her first book, New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Chefs, Farmers and Artisans of the Great Plains. You can find more of her work on her website at ScaldedMilk.com.