The pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis) is native to North America and Mexico. Pecans were long harvested for food before the arrival of European explorers, and pecan lumber became prized by furniture makers. The earliest native pecan groves are traced to the Mississippi River valley and Mexico’s river valleys. American Indians and fur traders brought pecans east, and trade records exist for pecans that were shipped to Great Britain before 1800. Although southern pecan cultivars were improved in the 1800s, the commercial pecan industry did not develop until the 20th century.
Pecans enjoy familiarity and popularity with consumers, and global demand for U.S.-grown pecans has increased in recent years. Ease of cracking many pecan cultivars makes in-shell sale of the nuts ideal for direct markets, including farmers markets, on-farm sales, roadside stands, and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) or other direct marketing channels. Wholesale foodservice and retail food markets are well-established for pecans. Pecans are a hallmark of Southern and regional cuisine, and restaurants specializing in local foods may be willing to pay a premium for locally grown pecans.
Selecting appropriate cultivars is imperative for successful pecan production in Kentucky, where only northern pecan cultivars will produce marketable crops in most years. Nut characteristics and disease resistance are important for cultivar selection. Desirable cultivars produce a crop with less than 80 nuts per pound, with kernels that are light straw-colored and easy to separate from the shell. Cultivars that produce more than two or three nuts per cluster offer yield advantages. Cold tolerance and resistance to key diseases, especially pecan scab, are desirable tree traits. Improved northern pecan cultivars from the USDA pecan breeding program, such as ‘Kanza,’ combine pecan scab disease resistance with good yield potential and outstanding kernel characteristics.