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Thursday, June 19, 2003 02:20 pm

The nutcrackers

The state’s only commercial pecan growers

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Justin Voss

"Would you like to try some pecans this morning?"
"Six pecans a day will lower stress."
"Pecans will keep for two years or more in the freezer."

These comments--cheerily addressed to strolling shoppers at the downtown farmer's market--are the calling cards of Karen and Norma Voss, sisters-in-law who sport matching pink cotton shirts. Behind a table loaded with bags of pecans in various states--chopped, shelled, or whole and toasted with cinnamon and sugar--they extol the health benefits of pecans like well-mannered preppy carnival barkers.

"People say they don't like pecans," says Karen. "But once they try one, they almost always buy some. People even buy a bag to eat while they walk around and shop. They'll finish them and have to come back to buy more before they leave.

"The ones found in the grocery stores aren't stored at cold temperatures, which makes them dark and kind of bitter. Another thing people always say is, 'Where are these pecans from?' They don't think they grow in Illinois."

Illinois pecans are smaller than southern pecans, but they have a sweeter taste. They are loaded with heart-healthy unsaturated fats and more than 19 vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, copper, zinc, and several B vitamins. The nuts pack a powerful nutritional punch and are naturally free of cholesterol and sodium. One serving provides about 10 percent of the government's recommend daily dose of zinc and fiber. And each time a new study is released about the health benefits of pecans, you can bet the Voss women will be disseminating it to new customers.

Karen's husband, Ralph, and his brother, Joe, own Voss Pecans, the only commercial pecan business in Illinois. Located in Carlyle, the growing Voss family business is tended by several generations of the Voss family, including spouses and children. Voss says her husband has become a well-known expert on pecans since purchasing 63 acres of dense timber filled with pecan trees in 1996.

"It's a great hobby," she says. "Farmers never take a vacation, especially dairy farmers. But now we have to travel to buy equipment," usually to warm weather regions like Alabama and Texas. The family harvests the nuts with a tree shaker, which is actually good for the tree, because it stimulates the roots, according to Voss. Pecans are harvested at the end of October and November, and then placed in the freezer. "We used to go pick pecans every Sunday all fall long--we were out there in our snowsuits," she says. A harvester with 500 rubber fingers picks them up off the ground and blows out the debris. The pecans are then shipped to Arkansas for packaging and sold in 30-pound boxes to bakeries and restaurants. Voss says 600,000 pounds were harvested last year.

The well-groomed grove resembles a park, with 1,300 pecan trees, each of which can produce 1,000 pounds of nuts a season. Ralph, a former dairy farmer, also works about 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans with his brother. The pecan business came naturally for the man who grew up with pecans on his family's farm.

"When we were dating, we would pick pecans on weekends," Karen says. "Now our three kids and their boyfriends and girlfriends all help out. We stand around the cleaning table in an unheated shed in the winter and crack pecans people bring us."

The couple recently purchased an electric nutcracker for Voss's 90-year-old father, Joe, who enjoys using it to crack pecans for friends.

The family sells at the farmer's markets, at an old milking parlor on their property, and at the annual Illinois Products Expo at the state fairgrounds. While most people use pecans in baking, or as a snack food or a meat substitute, Karen says she tosses them in everything from zucchini bread to salads. Surprisingly, she never makes pecan pie.

"I'm more into cream pies," she says, laughing.

For more information on pecans, recipes, and nutritional studies, check out www.ilovepecans.org.

Voss Pecans is located at 10101 Slant Road in Carlyle (618-594-2144).