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Updated Tuesday, January 19, 2010 12:58 PM
By DONNA HUNT
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DONNA HUNT / Herald Democrat
Bill Crabtree drives a Savage pecan harvester through his orchard.
One of my earliest memories as a child is going with my parents and grandparents to a farm at Cherry Mound east of Denison to picnic and pick up pecans on a crisp fall Saturday.
There was a large pecan orchard on the farm my grandparents owned and we always picked up enough of them for the entire family. What happened to the remainder of the pecans I do not remember.
We took number three washtubs out to the farm along with a basket filled with picnic food and a blanket and sat on the ground to eat when we got hungry. My dad always took a water jug because we got awfully thirsty when the weather was warm. We usually stayed all day, or until I got tired and whiney and was ready to go home. I remember that we wore long pants because we crawled around on the ground picking up the nuts. Some years there were a lot of them, and other years the crop wasn't as good.
We never cracked and picked out the pecans until we were ready to use them. My mother kept them in paper sacks on the back porch and when we decided to bake cookies, brownies or make something else that needed that crunchy taste, we filled a bowl with the nuts -- got the hand cracker - something like chopsticks that were attached at one end, and went to work picking out the pecans. We had a little picker, something like an ice pick with a curved point on the end, to loosen the stubborn pieces of nut that didn't want to come out with larger chunks. We saved every one of the tasty morsels.
Mother never would turn me loose with a very large knife for fear that I would cut myself, so I got a paring knife and it seems like I chopped each pecan individually.
Gathering pecans has really changed today. Recently I went out to Cherry Mound and possibly to the same pecan orchard that my grandfather owned when I was a kid. There, Bill Crabtree, who now owns the farm, was harvesting pecans from about 200 trees using a Savage harvester. What a difference 65 years makes.
Bill explained that pecans can be harvested through January and the recent cold snap and freezing temperatures didn't hurt the nuts at all. Possibly it preserved them a little longer. But machine harvesting is only the middle step in gathering the pecans.
The orchard floor must be clean before the big tree shaker brings the ripe pecans off the trees. All the limbs, large sticks and other trash must be hand picked up throughout the orchard and considering the space that 200 native pecan trees cover, that's a lot of "picking up." In Bill's orchard, piles of sticks and limbs stand away from the trees throughout the orchard.
Bill and a helper have been cleaning up for several weeks in anticipation of the big harvest and it is amazing how clean the ground in the orchard looks.
Once the tree shaker -- I don't know what it is called, but it is big enough to shake a huge tree and literally vibrate the ground around it -- is brought in, it rains pecans around each individual tree as it is shaken. No longer are a couple of cane poles lashed together to frail (at least that's what my dad called it) the pecans from their growing spots. The shaker uses enough force to bring the nuts down.
Then comes the blowing time. A larger hand blower, kinda like a vacuum cleaner in reverse that fits on someone's back is brought in to blow the nuts away from the base of the tree so that the harvester can pick them up.
Then comes the fun time. Bill gets on his tractor with the harvester attached and begins circling each tree from about 25 feet out from the base. As he goes around and around the tree, the harvester sucks up the nuts and other small debris, saves the pecans and spits the grass, small twigs, dried pecan hulls and even dirt clods out the back of the machine. I learned pretty quickly not to stand very close to the machine while it's in action.
By the time you go through this process for 200 trees, you've put in at least ten days work because the harvesting machine will only hold about 600 pounds of pecans. That many of the nuts will come from only a few trees.
Bill grew up on the neighboring farm with his parents and a younger and an older brother. When he was growing up, he and his brothers helped their dad harvest his pecans on that farm. His spending money came from selling pecans that he could gather in large, green-bean cans that he would get at the school cafeteria and carry home on the school bus.
He remembers one particular harvest time when his dad had told him he could have the pecans in a certain area. He had planned to pick them up on Saturday. He got his cans together on Saturday morning and went running to the orchard ready to get his reward for the hard work he had been doing during the week. When he got there, not a pecan was in sight. Someone had gotten into the orchard without his dad's permission and had stolen all the nuts in that area.
Bill caught one person helping himself to the pecans this year, but convinced him that it was stealing and he didn't want to see him back in the orchard again.
Some years they have a very good crop and other years it's pretty sorry. This year, he said, has been a pretty good year. I'm sure the weather has something to do with how good the crop is.
I no longer crawl around on the ground picking up pecans. First of all, I have no place to do that, and more importantly, I probably couldn't get up once I got down there. It's much easier to allow someone who knows what they are doing, like Bill, gather the pecans and sometimes even mechanically crack them and even blow away the trash leaving mostly whole, clean pecans.
They freeze nicely and I have some that already are over a year old in my freezer and are still perfect for cooking, or for eating when no one is looking.
When Bill isn't working on the farm in his orchard or in the pasture with his calves, he can be found hard at work at his "real" job, sharing duties with his wife, Mary at Crabtree's Furniture Store on Armstrong Avenue.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments ... 1 found!
The Crabtree Family : 1/20/2010
I have know the family for a very long time. A frind and I use to run around with Cecil, Bill's younger brother. I was glad to hear the family is still in the area. His dad had cattle as well. The boys got a new calf each year so by the time they were ready for college they had enough to sell to pay for college.
Barbara Sikes Bozeman
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