When to harvest pecans
We'll start with the 'when' and get to the 'how' afterward. Quite simply, pecans are ready for harvest when the hulls (some people call them 'shucks') begin to split and the pecans start falling to the ground. I always know that pecan harvest will soon be underway when the crows show up and begin snatching the nuts from the uppermost limbs of the pecan trees. The exact timeframe depends on the variety of pecan tree and your geographical location. Here in West Texas, the Western Schley pecans can mature as early as the second week in October, but have clung to the trees up until mid-December. If you live in south Texas or have an early maturing variety of pecan such as Pawnee, your crop could be ready to harvest in mid to late September. The pecans are nearing maturity when the hulls, which have been a crisp green color throughout the summer, begin to show brown stripes where the 'seams' of the hull will eventually appear. You can judge your upcoming harvest date by grasping a pecan hull between your index and 'naughty' finger and applying pressure to the tip. (As if you where holding a syringe and giving a goat a shot.) If the hull splits when gentle pressure is applied, your harvest is likely only a week or two away from beginning. This should be your signal to begin making preparations that will make your harvest easier. During this short period prior to nut drop, you should clean the area beneath your trees, removing any limbs, early-drop sticktights, rocks, and other debris that will hamper your harvest. If the leaves have begun to fall, removing them just prior to harvest will speed things up considerably. A leaf rake or blower will help in removing leaves from the base of your trees. You should also prepare whatever type of container you will use to hold your harvested pecans. Those large plastic totes with a snap-on lid work very well. Trash cans or other similar containers work well also. Of course, if you haven't devised a method to use to actually get the nuts picked up, now would be the time to make a decision. And once you've decided how get whatever tools together to get the job done.
Harvesting Pecans-Your backyard pecan tree
Harvesting your pecan crop can be a time consuming and labor intensive chore. The procedure can be as simple as grabbing a five-gallon bucket and picking those pecans up one at a time. If you have only a few pecans from a young tree, this process works quite well. If, however, you have several trees or a large crop from a mature tree, I'd suggest you at least grab a lawn rake and rake those pecans into piles before picking them up and filling your bucket. Your bucket will certainly fill up faster! I suggest you have a large plastic tote or two available to put your pecans in, and you might run down to the plumbing supply and purchase a long piece of PVC pipe. You might need it to 'whack' your tree limbs and get as many pecans on the ground as possible before you begin actually picking them up. The pole won't reach your top limbs, you'll probably have to wait for a stiff north wind to dislodge those pecans, and pick them up later on. As I mentioned, the actual act of picking the nuts up off the ground can become quite a chore. There are several ingenous tools available that can make this job easier, ranging from a 'slinky on a stick' up to a nifty piece of equipment that you push like a lawn mower, it's plastic tines capturing your pecans and placing them in a hopper. If you have a small tree, or a tree with a small crop of pecans, the 'slinky' will be helpful. If you have several mature pecan trees loaded with nuts, I suggest you invest in the equipment that is made for the business of picking up pecans. I've included some pictures of these tools below.
Once your crop is harvested, you will need to store your pecans for a week or two before you take on the chore of shelling them. Pecans straight off the tree will be fresh or 'green' and will not shell easily. Whether you intend to tackle the shelling chore with your hand-held nut cracker, or have them processed at a custom shelling facility, they need to sit and 'cure' for a while and allow the moisture content to moderate. While the plastic totes are handy during the actual harvest process, I really suggest you store the pecans in plastic mesh bags to allow sufficient air circulation. Whole pecans will maintain their quality throughout the winter in these mesh bags if stored in a cool location.
Harvesting the pecans in your orchard
I know of a fella who bought a pecan orchard a few miles away from here a few years ago. The orchard consisted of around a hundred mature trees and sold for a hundred and twenty five thousand dollars. This individual then went out and bought a hundred thousand dollars of pecan equipment. Two years later, the orchard and the equipment was up for sale for a hundred and twenty five thousand dollars. Now we don't have to be all that good at math to find out what we can and can't afford to do. One mature pecan tree will produce no more than one hundred pounds of pecans on it's very best year. One hundred mature trees will produce ten thousand pounds of nuts on their best year. If the state of Georgia doesn't produce a single pecan, the very best price a Texas pecan grower can expect to recieve for his crop is maybe two dollars a pound. All of that adds up to twenty thousand dollars, and a lot of us know we won't make a hundred pounds per tree, nor will we get two dollars a pound. So, lets get back to harvesting pecans.
When it comes to harvesting your pecan crop, you can choose the hard road and the less costly route, or you can bring in the fancy equipment that will make harvesting a breeze and with one bad year, send you into bankruptcy. First, you guys with the thousand acre orchards already have the fancy equipment and know all about harvesting pecans, and I don't even know why you're here. The rest of us, the good ol' boys with five or ten acre pecan orchards, have to pick up nuts off the ground to make an extra buck or two. I have to throw this in before we move on. Every single time I pause and stoop down to pick up a stray pecan, I remember a statement I made to my first father-in-law way back when I was young and dumb. I was visiting him one fall around Thanksgiving and we wandered over to a large pecan tree in his front yard. The ground was littered with nuts and the old codger suggested I gather up a sack full and take them home. I sneared and remarked, "I wouldn't waste the effort to bend over and pick up a pecan!" I always get this feeling that he and the good Lord snicker as they peek down and watch me picking up nuts off the ground!
I started searching for a 'better way' to harvest my pecans when our trees were young and dropping no more than five or ten pounds a year. I tried the 'slinky-on-a-stick' tool one year (that was the year I discovered I had arthritis in my hands thanks to that little contraption.) The following year, I bought a shop vac and a converter so I could run it from my pickup. I spent more time unclogging the hose than I did picking up nuts. I got plans to build a 'pecan harvester' from some guy on Ebay, and discovered I'd need an engineering degree to build it. I toyed with the idea to build a harvester out of a swamp cooler...I still think it might work. Finally, after years of tired, aching bones, I ran across an ad from a company in Florida that builds a harvester that works. They call it the Bag-A-Nut and I endorse it wholeheartedly for those of you who work a small orchard. We use a PVC pole to 'whack' the pecans from the tree and I built a cleaning table out of a bed frame and mesh wire. All total, including a sprayer, the 'Bag-A-Nut harvester, an old Farmall 560 tractor, and my home-made tools, we have around three thousand dollars invested in equipment.
There are other options available. I understand there is a gigantic pecan orchard out in West Texas with thousands of acres of trees. From what I hear, they employ migrant workers and arm them with yard rakes to harvest their crop. I have a fella come by every year wanting to bring his crew in and 'rake up pecans' on the halves. If your orchard is sufficiently large enough to contract a custom harvester, they will bring their heavy equipment and get the job done in a day. And then there's the equipment you can actually own. There will come a time when our orchard will require more than the 'Bag-A-Nut.' I will not make an investment in harvesting equipment until I can do so profitably. If you choose to purchase your own equipment, I encourage you to start slow, with a piece at a time, and shop around. The cheapest pecan equipment is over-priced so be cautious. I would suggest you purchase a pecan cleaner first. This will save you probably half of your time spent harvesting. A tree shaker will be needed eventualy as your trees grow beyond the length of your 'whacking pole.'
Your annual pecan harvest is, of course, the big event you have worked toward all year long. Timing is of the utmost importance since new crop pecans generally bring a much better price prior to and during the Thanksgiving-Christmas seasons. However, if making a profit from your crop is important, then it is important to make wise business decisions. Purchasing commercial pecan harvesting equipment can be a wise decision. Then again, maybe not. If you are new to pecan production, give yourself a few years to access your unique situation before jumping in over your head, and deep in debt. After all, a five gallon bucket makes a great tool in the pecan orchard.