When winter rolls around, Americans start craving baked desserts, many of which include pecans. Thanks to Miller Pecan Company, Oklahomans have access to locally grown pecans.
MPC, a local family-owned business located in Afton, Oklahoma, takes prides in farming pecans and boosting the mission of farm-to-table in their own backyard. MPC is vertically integrated, meaning they plant, harvest, process and market their pecan product within their own company. For this reason, the business is proud to produce a high-quality product that is set-apart from their competitors.
“Miller Pecan Company is one of the only U.S. pecan producers to take pecans from the tree to the table on a commercial scale,” said Kalyn Grokett, MPC marketing director.
The demand from consumers to know where their food is coming from is continually increasing, Grokett added.
“Modern consumers are now more inquisitive than ever before concerning the source of their food,” Grokett explained. “As American buying decisions trend toward a grassroots attraction, we have the unique opportunity to sincerely share our authentic family farming story, feeding more than just the stomachs of consumers, but also touching their hearts and emotions. Not only does our unique story give us a competitive advantage, but our grassroots approach enables us to establish a lasting relationship with our customers built on trust and transparency.”
Sales in the pecan industry are traditionally higher in the fall than any other season, Grokett said. Many people are unaware fresh pecans are available year-round to satisfy their appetite for a healthy and wholesome produce product.
“We have nearly 1,000 acres in production,” said Justin Miller, co-owner of MPC. “We clean almost all the pecans we pick at the farm before we even take them to the processing facility.”
Trees are fertilized with urea in February and typically again in October, Justin said.
“We mow about twice a year to prepare for harvest,” Justin explained. “The first mow, we mow high, and the second pulverizes low to the ground.”
Even though harvest is a short portion of the year (typically November through December), we are constantly preparing the groves by trimming trees, raking sticks, and keeping the areas clean, he continued.
“During harvest, it’s a lot of long hours and not much sleep,” he said. “When it’s time to harvest, we do so by shaking the trees. We use the harvesting machines to pick up the pecans and clean the debris from what is collected. Then we are ready to take them to be further processed.”
Many factors go into determining how successful a crop will turn out, Justin said. Weather conditions make or break our season. A decent crop will be anywhere around half a million pounds of native pecans, and a good crop can even reach a million pounds with our current mature stand.”
Justin said the pecan industry is a long-term commitment.
“We just planted new trees, but it will be six to eight years before they are ready to be harvested,” he said. “Our kids will get more harvest out of this crop than we ever will.”
When the company’s crop does not see a successful year from harvest, they often have native pecans shipped from Georgia or Louisiana, Justin said.
“With a small business like ours, sometimes we need the help of other producers for us to be able meet the needs of our customers,” Justin said.
When pecans first arrive at the plant, they are sanitized to remove any trace of potential surface bacteria such as salmonella or E.Coli, before they are further processed, said Amber Spriggs, MPC employee.
“After pecans are sanitized and cracked, I run necessary batches through a float system, which allows the laws of physics to water-logs any shell thus allowing the meat to separate from the shell via gravity flow,” Spriggs said. “My main job is to separate the shell from nut meat in mixed pecan pieces.
“After the nuts I handle are floated, they are processed through a drying machine where I monitor the moisture content until an acceptable level is reached,” Spriggs said. “It’s important that I check the moisture content on every batch so the consistency remains the same throughout our product. Moisture needs to stay between 3.5 and 4 percent per 150 grams to ensure quality standards.”
Justin’s brother, Jared Miller, co-business owner and operator, said if the moisture is too high, the nuts could mold. The pecans must be dry enough to be cracked and sized before moving on to the finishing stages.
“We wait for about 40,000 pounds worth of crop before we run it through the machine sizing machines,” Jared said. “One machine alone can crack 3,000 pounds, and we have several machines running, but each pecan is cracked one at a time.”
The business is successful because of the precision of the machines and the dedication from the employees, Jared explained.
“We have the capabilities to size whole pecans and pieces by every 1/16th inch,” Jared said. “Halves are worth more than pieces, so we try to utilize as much of the whole pecan as possible.”
Sales are not made until the pecans have gone through the final quality assurance step where every pecan piece and half is inspected by hand, Jared said. It’s important that the final step be executed correctly and accurately to ensure complete customer satisfaction.
“Pecans are all inspected for any minute flaws, then packaged in a 30 pound cases to be shipped to nation-wide customers or sold within the store front,” Jared said.
Grokett said customers know Miller Pecans are different than any other on the market.
“Our success has been influenced greatly by the continued support of our customers,” Grokett said. “We recognize that we would be nothing without our customers, so we treat them just like we would like to be treated. As a result, they keep returning. Emphasizing our farm-fresh commitment guarantees our customers the best quality pecans they can get their hands on.”
The pecan industry has taken a reactive position to building consumer demand, according to Grokett.
“A recent and continuing shift in the pecan industry is resulting in a greater trend toward a more proactive position,” Grokett said. “The industry is recognizing huge potential among the millennial demographic and therefore capitalizing on the tremendous health benefits offered by pecans, their native origin and adding a fresh twist to their traditional uses.”
(Wood is an agricultural communications student at Oklahoma State University.)