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Words by Kelly Franson

…And the pecan farmer that changed my mind. 

With Earth Month coming to a close, I wanted to reflect on one of my former “zero-waste” habits that I’ve tossed out the window. I used to love strolling the well-stocked aisles of Sprouts or Whole Foods, cotton produce bags in hand, ready to fill up on all the bulk bin goodies. Whether it was stocking up on dried fruit, rolled oats, or nuts, I thought I was doing the planet a favor by buying everything in bulk without packaging – that is until I met Alex Willson, a pecan farmer and expert on all-things nuts.

Then I discovered the beauty of purchasing directly from small-scale producers online or at the farmer’s market – the inventory turnover is faster (it’s not sitting in some grimy grocery store bin), the products are fresher, and you know exactly who’s growing your food. I first started by finding farm fresh pecans, since that was my main bulk bin go-to. Not only are they both delicious and nutritious , but they also are produced domestically, so they don’t incur the shipping mileage and ethical labor issues that a lot of tropical nuts do. I had the opportunity to chat with Alex Willson who runs his fourth generation family pecan farm, Sunnyland Farms in Albany, Georgia. 

Although pecans aren’t in season right now, you’re still able to support nut farmers as they ride out the off-season if you purchase from farms like Sunnyland who freeze their nuts in-shell to be stored properly throughout the year. Buying nuts from farmers like Alex is a better alternative to purchasing from bulk bins where the nuts are likely to turn dark and rancid. Producers like Alex are also able to control freshness. By skipping over distributors and retailers, farm fresh pecans are delivered directly to you within 3-4 days.

For long standing family farms like Sunnyland and even newer small-scale farms who don’t have as deep pockets as conglomerate farmers, the main challenge is finding realistic ways to keep innovating sustainably. Sunnyland hand sorts and shells their pecans which is hard to come across in the industry, and they’ve found a way to use the whole nut. Only about 50% of the pecan is meat – everything else is shell which often goes to waste. However, shells contain high levels of oil,  leading Alex to repurpose the shells as biofuel to power their processing plant.

 Another barrier facing small-scale pecan farmers is finding the time and capital to become USDA Organic certified. The USDA Organic certification is often employed as a marketing tactic by large producers who can afford to grow organically in the South where it’s hard to do so given the humid climate and difficulties with mold. Therefore, Alex chose to focus on more feasible methods of sustainable production such as burning shells, microjet irrigation to conserve water, and conscious packaging.

My search for a better nut also allowed me to develop a deep appreciation for the rich cultural history that is unique to the pecan. As the only tree native to North America, pecans were first harvested by indigenous peoples and became central to African-American cooking. If you need some pecan pie inspiration, I’d highly recommend Tanya Holland’s of Brown Sugar Kitchen’s Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie or Toni Tipton-Martin’s recipe from her cookbook Jubilee).

Being a curious consumer cultivates connections with the people who produce your food. Purchasing pecans from someone like Alex is much more gratifying than blindly opting for ones from the grocery store. The deliberate search to learn more about where my food comes from and what that food means to the cultures who celebrate it is so rewarding that I’ve decided to no longer go nuts for bulk bin finds – it’s the “tree to table” nuts from now on!

Find Alex and his family on Instagram @sunnylandfarms