The Best Ones
Accidental Pecan Farmers
BY Lacey Thacker Photography by Katie Childs
Leanna Clark, a retired critical care nurse, spent the last 20 years of her career in the emergency room at St. Vincent’s before retiring five years ago. Her husband, Bob Clark, is a physician who retired from surgery 20 years ago and medicine 15 years ago. Their previous occupations might be considered by some a far cry from the primary occupation of their retirement—raising pecans and cattle.
“We got the orchard by accident,” Bob says. Leanna laughs and continues, “When we bought this land, we mainly bought it for the hay, because we have a cow/calf operation that has about 300 head.” Bob told Leanna that if she wanted to mess with the orchard, it would be her project.
She took that statement to heart. After they purchased the property in Mayflower, about 30 acres of which is orchard, Leanna called the 20 people who used to help bring in the harvest for the previous owner. “I learned everything I know about pecans from those 20 people, including Royce Hall, who had the only pecan cracker in Conway,” she says.
The previous owner used to open the orchard to the public as opposed to selling commercially. Leanna continues that tradition “to honor the history of the place,” but because they’ve moved almost their entire operation to commercial sales as of 2012, they’re only able to do so for about six days each season, which runs from roughly the end of October to the beginning or middle of December. Visitors can come and pick as much as they wish, and they’re allowed to keep half of what they pick for free. Additional pecans may be purchased. “It’s good to meet the people,” says Michael, Leanna and Bob’s son. “But what we don’t sell retail, we’ll wholesale—and that’s most of it.”
The orchard has two types of trees. The first is an older native variety named “Desirables,” and they ripen later in the year, usually after Thanksgiving, while the newer hybrids, called Stuarts, ripen earlier—just in time for Thanksgiving. The Desirables in the orchard are tall and picturesque—soaring many feet into the air before branching. Despite the size of the trees, the nut itself is much smaller than one might expect. “They’ve got a thick shell, but they’re so much better—oiler, sweeter. Confectioners like them a lot,” Bob says, breaking one open to show the interior of the not-yet-ripe nut.
The morning the family—Leanna, Bob and Michael, who is a partner in the pecan business—met with Arkansas Food & Farm, they had just come from an ag committee meeting in Little Rock, where, Leanna says, various farmers meet with the extension agent who hears the current concerns from farmers, which allows him to begin making statewide plans for the next year. Michael, who received his undergraduate degree in substance abuse counseling and a graduate degree in conflict resolution, says wryly that though raising pecans and beef is all he’s ever done, “[My education] has helped me with all the boards and committees I’m on.”
The process of harvesting pecans is a detailed one. First, the trees are shaken by, yes, a shaking machine, though the older trees can’t be shaken until they’ve gone dormant, or they might be damaged. While many of the pecans will have already fallen to the ground, the shaking brings down the rest. Next, the pecans are collected, and finally, they’re cleaned of debris. As they come down the conveyor belt, a worker stands and separates the good from the bad. Bob says he finds the work relatively pleasant, but that it’s easy to look up from the conveyor belt and become dizzy. “Your brain has decided that this moving belt is actually still, and when you look up, it takes a minute to adjust,” he says.
Visit cowsandpecans.com for more information about Clark’s Pecans and the 2018 picking season.