Monday, August 26, 2013

Of Pecans, Profits, and Piety

Broadly speaking, the system of international trade we live under is a kind of technology.  It’s certain that without modern engineered means of transportation and communications, international markets would be much less significant than they are today.  And while the particular story I’m going to relate pertains to the oldest technology in human history, namely farming, the lesson behind it applies to many fields of engineering.

The pecan tree is the state tree of Texas.  (In case you’ve never heard a Texan say it, it’s pronounced “puh-cawn”).  Pecan trees can grow to a height of 100 feet (30 meters) or more, live up to 1000 years, and for most of those years can produce an abundant annual crop of tasty, highly edible nuts.  When my late grandfather moved to Fort Worth, Texas in 1930, he planted a pecan tree in his back yard.  The last time I visited his house (currently occupied by other relatives), that tree was still going strong, providing shade for most of the back yard and a good bit of the house too.  Pecan trees are native to Texas and grace thousands of acres of river banks and bottom lands, besides furnishing an important food crop to pecan growers who grow hundreds of different varieties.  Pecans are sold both for direct consumption, either in the shell or hulled, and also as ingredients for processed food that benefit from the addition of chopped or blended pecans.  But until about a decade ago, the pecan market was almost entirely domestic, with a good number being sold mainly in Texas.

Then someone in China caught on to the fact that the huge market there for snack nuts, sold often in vending machines in locations such as gas stations and convenience stores, might benefit from imported pecans.  Up until then, most of the snack nuts sold were Chinese walnuts, but the cheaper pecan tastes just as good (in my opinion, anyway), and some clever Chinese importers introduced the new nut to Chinese consumers around 2001.

They liked it—liked it so much that since 2007, shipments of pecans to China from the U. S. (which includes exports from relatively new pecan-growing states such as Georgia and New Mexico as well as Texas) averaged almost 60 million pounds annually.  But there is a fly in this profitable ointment, which is the fact that the Chinese market wants a particular kind of “improved” pecan, not the rich variety of our native pecans.

According to an article in Texas Monthly by James McWilliams, the hybrid improved pecans have a uniform size, uniformly thin shells, and uniform quality.  These improved varieties will work in the Chinese vending machines, which can’t handle the variation in shapes and sizes of native varieties.  Texas pecan growers have known about the Chinese market for years, but so far they have exhibited a marked reluctance to chop down their existing groves, many of which are native varieties, to plant the improved type that produces machine-vendable pecans.   In so doing, they are losing year by year a potential market that could allow Texas to surpass the newer pecan-growing states and once more lead the nation in pecan exports.

That takes care of pecans and profits; now for the piety.  I have been reading a book called Food & Faith, a work of theological musings about the connections between eating and Christianity.  The author, Norman Wirzba, relies on the works of agrarians such as Wendell Berry as well as more explicitly theological writers.  But I was struck by the following passage from the book as expressing exactly what is going on between the Chinese pecan market and Texas pecan growers:  “Food that may have begun in the ground [or on a tree] must lose all traces of soil, sunlight, and fragile plant and animal life so that it can be redesigned, engineered [!], improved, packaged, stored, and delivered in whatever ways the food producer sees fit.”  Wirzba’s book, among many other things, is an impassioned plea to stop thinking about food and eating merely in material and economic terms. 

Viewed one way, it only makes sense for Texas pecan farmers to replant their groves with machine-friendly pecan trees, for the more efficient production of pecans that will contribute to the efficient international trade that efficiently fills vending machines with pecans that Chinese consumers can eat to fuel the machines called their bodies. 

But viewed another way, there is incalculable value in tending native pecan trees which are so deeply connected at multiple levels to a part of the world that Texans, at least, view as God’s country.  Not that His title to the rest of the world is defective in any serious way.  But as a recent arrival here from California said to me the other day, “Texans seem to have a loyalty to their state that I haven’t noticed anywhere else.”  And native pecan trees are part of what makes Texas the place it is.  I find reassuring the fact that just down the road from where I live, in Seguin, you can visit Pape’s Pecan Nutcracker Museum, and view both stationary and portable World’s Largest Pecans.  One is a concrete model on a pedestal on the town square, and the other, welded out of steel, is mounted on a trailer for convenient towing in parades.  And I would like to think that at least part of the reason that Texas pecan growers haven’t done the economically sensible and efficient thing of whacking down all their old-fashioned native trees to plant new ones for the Chinese market, is that, well, there’s more important things than money. 

It takes ten years for a new pecan sapling to mature enough to start producing.  That induces a natural tendency in pecan farmers to take the long view.  Ten years from now, the Chinese may have dropped pecans for Brazil nuts, for all I know.  But the rich biological and cultural heritage represented by the native pecan trees of Texas will live on, I hope, for many generations to come.

Sources:  I learned about the Chinese pecan market from James McWilliams’ article “Shell Game” in the Sept. 2013 edition of Texas Monthly.  It is an excerpt from his book The Pecan:  A History of America’s Native Nut to be published in October 2013.  I also referred to an online article about the pecan market posted by Nature’s Finest Foods Ltd. (a brokerage firm) at and an item by the Whitney Consulting Group posted on Google Docs (account required) at  Norman Wirzba’s Food & Faith:  A Theology of Eating was published in 2011 by Cambridge University Press.

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