Neighbors started to notice a change in Leland Prothe in his fifties.
“When you were younger, you cut all the trees down and now you’re trying to raise ’em,” they told him.
It’s true, the Heartland Rural Electric Cooperative member says. He either ignored or cleared out native pecan trees on his farm near Paola, the first 80 acres of which his great grandfather bought in 1879. Leland and his wife, Slina, were the fourth generation of Prothes to grow crops on the northeast Kansas land, and they purchased the farm in 1960 from Leland’s aunts.
By 1987, he had quit growing crops and one day he was working on clearing brush and a few young pecan trees from a pasture with his chain saw. His wife asked him to leave some of the trees because she’d heard there was a local workshop scheduled soon on grafting pecan trees.
“So that’s what we did,” Leland says. “We went to the meeting, the guy had brought some pecan graft wood that I took home, and that’s how we got into it. We started by grafting about 20 acres of trees and we loved it, so we planted more trees until we finally got up to 2,200 trees.”
Leland is sharing this story while standing in his favorite place: his pecan orchard. He loves working with the trees, he says, from trimming them in the early spring (like he was doing before stopping to take this telephone call to talk about Prothe’s Pecans) to grafting the trees, watering and mowing the orchard and harvesting the nuts, which happens in the late fall.
To harvest the crop, the Prothes use a shaker that clamps to each tree trunk and shakes nuts to the ground, a harvester that gathers nuts and a cleaner that blows air to separate nuts from sticks and debris. Then, the couple and a few friends and family will inspect the nuts by hand before storing them in breathable bags in the freezer until they are ready to be cracked for sale.
Selling pecans is a year-round enterprise. The whole pecans are taken from the freezer as needed throughout the year and placed in an air-operated cracker that can process up to 400 pounds per hour, delivering full halves without damaging them.
Leland turns 88 this June, and he and his wife are still doing the majority of the work themselves. He’s been a pecan grower for more than three decades now and says he wishes he’d embraced the trees earlier in life.
“My wife and I travel a lot with motorcycles and we have for 40-something years, but I always think ‘I would rather be in my orchard,’” he says. “I just love working with these trees.”
Leland has inspired others, including Brad and Lila Carter. A few years after Leland established Prothe’s Pecans near Paola, the Carters created Jake Creek Pecans a few miles east near Louisburg, Kansas.
“Leland’s a great guy, he’s been my mentor for years,” says Brad Carter, who also started growing pecans later in life, after a career in computer programming.
If you think you’ve been hearing about pecans more often lately, there’s a good chance you have. The American Pecan Council launched a branding campaign in 2018 to promote American Pecans, The Original Supernut™. The group’s goal is to get us to think of pecans as a nut with many uses, not just a baking ingredient found on the dessert table.
Snacking on a handful of pecans — about 15-20 pecan halves — delivers 19 vitamins and minerals. Industry groups cite nearly two decades of research documenting the heart-health benefits of pecans, which are lower in carbohydrates and higher in dietary fiber compared to other nuts and are among the highest in “good” monounsaturated fats.
The National Pecan Shellers Association even promotes National Pecan Month to consumers each April, a reminder that pecans are just as tasty now as they are at Thanksgiving.
The United States is the world’s leading supplier of pecans, considered the only tree nut that is native to the U.S. We produce 80% of the global pecan crop, and three-fourths of that supply is harvested in Georgia, New Mexico and Texas though 12 additional states grow pecans commercially.
Kansas and neighboring Missouri are the most northern of that group. Neither are considered major producers, but local growers provide us with fresh pecans that we can purchase year-round.
“There’s just no comparison between the flavor of a fresh pecan and a store-bought pecan,” Carter says. “If you buy a package of pecans from the grocery store or Sam’s, either the oil has been boiled out of them — along with all the flavor — or they have a preservative put on them so they don’t go rancid. We’ll harvest our pecans in late October and November, and then we store them in freezers to keep them fresh so you can enjoy them all summer long.”
Prothe’s and Jake Creek are two of the northernmost pecan growers in Kansas. Pecans have grown wild for centuries in the state, mostly along major rivers and streams in the southeastern part of the state, though there are few improved variety orchards with retail operations. Consumers generally prefer these varieties over the natives because they are a larger, thinner shelled nut that is more easily cracked.
Getting information about pecans in the state is tougher since the 2018 retirement of William Reid, former Pecan Research and Extension specialist who was the go-to source for pecan growing in Kansas and Missouri for nearly four decades. There’s no longer an organized group of Kansas’ pecan growers (also a good source for consumers to find where to buy pecans).
K-State’s pecan experiment field in Chetopa, near the Oklahoma border in southeast Kansas, retired alongside Reid, its long-time director. The industry can still benefit from his expertise, though, through his oft-updated blog northernpecans.blogspot.com. His posts share knowledge gathered from years of research at the field as well as his ongoing observations on pecan tree culture and management on his own 30-acre pecan orchard near Chetopa.
Reid and the work done at the experiment station identified new varieties that grow successfully in Kansas, cultivated by grafting the variety to the root stock of a native or established variety. Among the most popular, and what you’ll widely find for sale from local growers: Pawnee, a large, rich tasting nut, and Kanza, a great tasting nut that is typically smaller than the Pawnee but holds together well during cracking, resulting in an attractive finished nut.
Three Kansas Pecan Growers Who Sell Online
The growers we talked to are expecting a large pecan crop this fall, barring unforeseen weather complications that might impede nut set and growth this spring and summer.
Prothe’s Pecans, near Paola – Leland and Slina Prothe have dedicated about 70 acres of their farm near Paola to pecan trees that now number about 2,200. They did little with the native pecan trees on the farm that’s been in the family since 1879 until Leland started grafting improved varieties onto the trees in 1987.
The Prothes sell whole, cracked and shelled pecans (halves and pieces) online (prothespecans.com), on their farm by appointment (call 913-849-3358 or 913-449-1719) and at the farmers market in Overland Park from April to November.
Jake Creek Pecans, near Louisburg – Brad and Lila Carter started their pecan orchard as a hobby in 1994 by planting 200 saplings in a former cornfield along the banks of Jake Creek near Louisburg in northeast Kansas. They added about 100 trees each year until 2001, when they purchased adjoining property and began growing their own saplings through a process of stratifying the pecan nut.
Today, the hobby has evolved into a 1,900-tree orchard and a full-time operation for the Carters. They grow improved varieties including Pawnee, Kanza, Goosepond, Peruque and Gardner.
You can buy whole, cracked and shelled pecans online (jakecreekpecans.com), on their farm by appointment (call 913-406-2501 or 913-849-3654) and at farmers markets in Lawrence and Lenexa, generally from April to November.
Circle’s Pecans & Country Store, McCune – Thomas and Linda Circle bought an existing pecan orchard in the early 1990s and sold pecans from a small roadside market. Today their son Tom and his wife, Barbara, run the business, which includes about 2,500 trees in a 150-acre orchard in the Neosho River Valley of southeast Kansas, the state’s largest shelling operation and a country store.
Tom’s grandfather, Edmund Circle, is credited with devising a better way to monitor and trap the pecan weevil, one of the most destructive insects pecan growers must manage. Edmund’s Circle Trap design is still used throughout the industry today.
They sell pecans shelled, cracked and blown or completely shelled as halves and pieces. In addition to natives, the main varieties in their orchard are Pawnee, Kanza, Lakota, Faith, Green River and Peruque.
The operation has grown to include more than nuts. The family sells their pecans at Circle’s Pecans & Country Store, which has operated for 27 years about 1 mile from the orchard. It’s a favorite stop for bus tours and families on road trips, Tom says, and is known for deli sandwiches, homemade pies (yes, pecan of course!) and other baked goods and treats.
Their store at 2499 U.S. Hwy 400 in McCune and is open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with the exception of major holidays. An e-commerce site is coming too (kansaspecans.com) and you can also order pecans to be shipped by phone (620-632-4382) during store hours.