Pecans Unwrapped – Pike County Family Shares Its Shelling Secrets
When Lester Whaley opened a fruit store and started buying and selling pecans in 1937, he probably never imagined that 65 years later his grandson would be shipping pecans to customers all over the world.As one of about 25 pecan shellers in the United States, Whaley Pecan Co. Inc., in downtown Troy, has grown from shelling 95,000 pounds of nuts that first year to a current sales volume that measures in the millions of pounds. Owner Bob Whaley said the key to his family’s success has been the relationship they have with growers, coupled with strict quality standards. “We get these pecans straight from the orchard in truckloads. We shell, pack and–this time of year–can ship them within four days of the time they were harvested,” Whaley said. “That gives our customers the chance to enjoy our product at the peak of freshness.”Most of the pecans the company buys arrive in half-ton boxes on trucks from growers in Alabama and neighboring states. But, Whaley said the family still buys pecans from individuals–just like when his grandfather started the business.”We literally buy from people who bring in a few pounds in a paper bag and from growers who produce 1-2 million pounds,” Whaley said. Once the nuts arrive at the plant, they are sampled, weighed and tested to determine their quality and yield. Growers are paid based on the percent kernel versus shell. The pecans also are graded by diameter, so the shelling equipment can be calibrated for maximum efficiency. Whaley said the pecan crop this year is exceptionally good.”This year, we are seeing some of the biggest nuts we’ve ever seen because we had plenty of rain during the growing season,” he said. “Some of them look like hen eggs.”Prior to shelling, the pecans are washed, and moisture is added to prevent breaking. They also are sanitized in a 195-degree bath before passing through a machine that can crack 800 nuts per minute. The shells are then removed–and sold to plywood manufacturers–while the kernels pass through a gauntlet of ever stricter cleaners, sorters, electronic eyes and human inspectors. The end results are products that range from perfect halves to pecan meal.Whaley said the system is so advanced that most of the time the first person to touch the pecan kernel is the person who eats it.Whaley sells pecans to bakeries, retail outlets and for fund-raising projects as well as through their mail-order business. In addition to pecan halves and pieces, the company sells a variety of gift packs and specialty products including pralines, candy-coated pecans, pecan logs and pecan brittle. Call (334) 566-3504 for a catalog.