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Putt Wetherbee Goes Nuts on his Georgia Farm

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Putt Wetherbee Goes Nuts on his Georgia Farm
Putt Wetherbee Stands Under a Pecan Tree on His Farm in Albany, Georgia. Photos by Buck Taylor and text by Kristina Held.

Pecan

P’KHAN? Pee-CAN? or PEE-Can?

Spend even a little time talking to Putt Wetherbee, pecan purveyor of Schermer’s Pecans in Georgia, and it quickly becomes clear that he is a man who is passionate about his product. The Wetherbee family has worked in the pecan industry for five generations, the zeal being passed down alongside the trade. According to Wetherbee, “Our history is worth sharing with anyone who likes pecans and seeks the very best of anything in life.” Schermer’s Pecans certainly are the best; from roasted and salted to candied and chocolate covered, they have a delicious nut for everyone.

TLP: As a Southerner, how do you pronounce the word “pecan”? Is it p’KAHN? PEE-can? Pee-CAN?
Putt Wetherbee (PW):
Well this is going to sound weird, but it really depends on who you’re talking to. Somebody from the Midwest would probably say PEE-kahn or p’KAHN.

TLP: Historically, how did the pecan become an important nut and crop for the South?
PW:
The largest commercial planting [located in the South] was back in the early 1900s. There were pecans that came back with soldiers from the Civil War, and they were all over the Southeast. They migrated over to Texas. Just about every pecan tree in the United States can trace its roots back to a river basin somewhere in Texas.

TLP: What is the history behind Schermer Farms?
PW:
Well, there are two stories there. The first is my great, great, great, great uncle planted pecans in the early 1900s on our land. He came down to Georgia in 1867 and was very successful here in agriculture. That was the first generation of my family to grow pecans, and that land has stayed in my family for five generations. The second story started with Alton and Lula Schermer, who recognized that churches needed a way to do some fundraising and started Schermer Pecans back in 1946, coincidentally after another war. My dad bought the company in seventy-seven. Then, it was primarily a fundraising company, and we dabbled in the gift business when we started offering candied pecans in the late nineties. And now we’re just trying to make that transition from fundraising to the gift business.

TLP: Could you describe the harvesting process? I read somewhere it involves shaking a tree?
PW:
It is one of the funniest things you’ll ever see. I LOVE it when harvest season comes around. You’re right, you do have a machine that goes up and grabs the tree and shakes all the nuts off. Then another machine that has a fan on the back blows them out of the tree row into the middle. A third machine puts them in a windrow—it’s a little pile about two feet wide. A final machine comes along and picks up the pecans and separates them from as many sticks and leaves as it can. The nuts then go into a cart, are dumped onto a semi-trailer, and transferred to the cleaning plant.

TLP: What happens at the cleaning plant?
PW: That’s where the next set of fun begins, at the cleaning plant. I grew up in the cleaning plant, and it’s a wonder I didn’t end up in a bag of pecans [laughs]. There are so many moving parts. It’s noisy, dusty, and hectic, but it is so much fun to watch. I never get tired of it until the end of the season. Then I’m ready to take a break.

TLP: When is the harvest season and how long does it last?
PW:
It varies a little from year to year, but it generally starts at the end of September, and depending on the weather and the size of the crop, it can last all the way into January. But typically it’s very, very busy from about October twentieth to December fifteenth.

TLP: I know you spent some time in the fertilizer business, as well as in the corporate world. What made you come back to pecans?
PW: I’ve always loved this business, but when I got out of college business was tough in agriculture, especially in pecans, so there wasn’t an opportunity here. I went into an agri-company instead, and when the time was right, I came back to our family pecan business. I ended up here not in a direct path but was able to bring some international and industrial experience back to the farm with me to help grow our business. It was a path of fate.

TLP: What other ways besides gifting do you see the farm and business expanding?
PW: We have a new 150,000-pecan tree nursery that we planted and hired a pecan propagation legend in the Southeast to nurture. We will have trees ready in 2014 for sale. That little tidbit in itself opens volumes of discussion and opportunity about varieties of pecans and how they came about and the feuds over which is the best. We are also learning to tell our story about who came before us and how we arrived at this moment. There is a lot to tell about the last sixty-five years of Schermer and five generations of pecans.

TLP: Additionally, are you facing any challenges right now? For example, I recently read an article about pecan prices having gone up because China has actually been buying about a third of our national annual pecan crop. Also, I heard a recent drought in Texas (a major pecan producer) has dwindled the supply?
PW:
The price of pecans has been going through the roof! It’s really hard to sell big price increases to our customer and make them understand that even though they paid three dollars a pound last year, they are going to pay eight dollars a pound this year.

TLP: The New York Times ran an article last year about the increase in pecan theft in Georgia. Is that affecting your farm?
PW: That hasn’t really been a problem for us in the last few years. We take a lot of precautions with security in our cleaning plant. And our farms—their locations alone make it really challenging for someone to come in and steal pecans. But it is a big problem in the area.

TLP: What are some of the health benefits of pecans?
PW:
It’s a very healthy nut, which we use now as a marketing tool. Pecans have more antioxidants than any other tree nut. There was a study online where doctors controlled cholesterol by introducing pecans into people’s diet. Nuts suffered a stigma in the past where people felt they had too much fat. Now that we understand so much more about good fats and bad fats, people are more receptive.

TLP: Your website boasts 1,200 different ways to use pecans. Do you have any favorite uses for them?
PW: Yes, I love them roasted and salted. I asked a speaker at one of our meetings a few years ago if roasting the pecans diminishes health benefits in any way, and he said roasting actually makes the nutrients more available to your body. I don’t know about the salted part, but I still put salt on mine [laughs].

TLP: Does your family have any traditional recipes with pecans in it?
PW: I grew up eating a lot of pecan pie, but mostly our big trick was to take the roasted salted ones and put them on top of ice cream! We have a great family story too where my grandmother would only use a variety of pecan called Curtis from the Putney Orchard. One day, my dad convinced her to taste Elliots from a new orchard he’d purchased in Baconton, Georgia. That day Elliots became the family nut of choice and if Ciella, my grandmother’s beloved cook, mistakenly placed any other kind of pecan atop her wafer-thin sugar cookies the violator was quickly discarded—or eaten on the spot—and replaced. These delicacies were always kept in the pantry on the middle shelf where if you weren’t “this tall” you had to ask for one and received only one! Elliots are not a great commercial variety, but we make excuses to keep them because we love them.

TLP: Any final thoughts to share about Schermer pecans versus the rest of the pecans
in the world?
PW: When I was little I thought all pecans tasted like ours—we all did. It was hard to see a difference in us and the rest of the pecan world because we didn’t see the rest of the world…One thing I suspected was that few people in the world have ever really tasted a fresh pecan that was properly stored and handled before it got to them. At the [Fancy Food] show my wife and I really encouraged people to try our fresh pecans and the experience showed us [that we really do] provide the best, freshest pecan in the world.