Southern Illinois Family Has a Passion for Pecans (VIDEO)
“My husband and his family always loved pecans. When we were dating, I remember many beautiful fall Sundays when he would want to go pick up pecans,” Karen Voss recalls of the man who turned that passion into a family profession.
More than 40 years later, she and Ralph, her husband, grow pecans on 140 acres – and manage another 110 acres – in the southern Illinois community of Carlyle in pecan-rich Clinton County.
The German Catholic population that settled in Clinton County prized the pecan, carefully clearing the land around any pecan trees.
“There are a lot of pecan trees in Clinton County – nearly every other household has a tree in the yard,” says Voss, whose family took that passion for pecans to new levels. “Voss Pecans is the largest grower in Illinois, and we’re about as far north as pecans grow,” she says. “We have small, native trees that grow naturally in the river bottom, and grafted varieties that produce bigger nuts with superior quality.”
Aside from their passion crop, the Voss’s grow more common Illinois crops, including corn, soybeans and wheat.
“Pecans are a way to diversify our crops,” Voss says. “We plant early varieties of corn and soybeans, so when we’re done harvesting the row crops, we can move into pecans.”
Beginning in late October or early November, those harvests yield, on average, around 60,000 pounds of pecans.
The unique harvesting process begins with the aptly named “tree shaker,” which gently grabs the trunk with rubber pads and shakes the tree until pecans rain down upon the ground.
The process does not harm the tree. To the contrary, Voss says. “It’s actually good for the trees because it stimulates the roots, and prunes off dead sticks and branches along the way,” she notes.
Next, a harvester with hundreds of rubber “fingers” sweeps up pecans from the ground. A cleaning system then separates the nuts from any remaining debris.
Voss Farms sends a portion of each harvest, whole in the shell, to a custom shelling facility in Oklahoma for ready-to-use pecans. On-site, seven electric cracking machines allow them to open nuts of varying sizes.
Ultimately, their prized pecans make their way into restaurants, bakeries and households near and far. Regulars at farmers’ markets in St. Louis, Springfield and Champaign-Urbana, the Voss family also sells whole, half-cracked and cinnamon-sugared pecans online and in co-op stores.
“We have customers all over,” Voss says. “The smaller pecans from our small, native trees have an excellent flavor. These are preferred by the high-end bakeries and candymakers. The grafted trees produce a larger, good-tasting nut. The most popular varieties are Pawnee and Kanza.”
As one of the nation’s northernmost producers of pecans, Karen and Ralph Voss often advise other growers facing unique issues, and inform consumers as well.
“People buy with their eyes. We tell people to look for a golden-brown color to determine the freshness of pecans,” says Voss.
She also recommends chilling pecans to significantly extend their shelf life.
“They need to be refrigerated and frozen,” she says. “Otherwise, the oil in the nut turns bad and it gets dark – that affects the quality of the nut.”
Whether you prefer them by the handful or as part of praline candy or pecan pie, this nut packs a punch in terms of health benefits.
Rich in antioxidants, pecans help lower the risk of cancer and heart disease, balance cholesterol levels, maintain blood sugar levels and support weight management.
“They also promote longevity,” Voss says. Her in-laws offer living proof. “My husband’s family lives forever. His dad did the cracking here until he was 95,” Voss says. “Most of the time, we have four generations working here. It’s good bonding time – everybody helps.”
Looking back, this former city girl could not have predicted those Sunday afternoons spent picking up pecans with her boyfriend would grow into a family business – and a legacy for generations to come.
“They say if it’s your passion, you’ll succeed at it. Pecans are definitely Ralph’s passion,” Voss says, laughing. “I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
Deep Roots in Illinois
Lest you think pecans are strictly a Southern nut, Ralph Voss will happily remind you that the roots of this tasty tree nut run deep in Illinois. Long part of the Illinois landscape, pecans earned the nickname “Illinois nuts” when early European settlers first encountered them here. The Latin name for “pecan” reflects its connection to the Land of Lincoln: Carya illinoinensis.
Go Nuts for Voss Pecans
Location: 10101 Slant Road in Carlyle
Phone: (618) 594-4122
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday; noon to 3 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.