Virginia Willis Blog

What’s in Season: Georgia Pecans


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Family Business

I love pecans and it’s pecan season! I grew up in south Georgia, home to pecans, peaches, and peanuts. In south and middle Georgia there are pecan groves as far as the eye can see. The Willson family at Sunnyland Farms recently invited me down  to check out their multi-generational farm and write a piece about them. Sunnyland Farms is a 1,760 acre farm in Albany, Georgia. As a chef and food writer, the “nut” of this story, if you will pardon my pun, is the history of the business, as well as the human element — the personal touch. The mail order component of Sunnyland Farms was founded in 1948 by Jane and Harry Willson. As president, Jane continued working well into her 90s until she passed away in 2015. In fact, I noticed a few heritage boxes that had her name still listed in the return address! It’s personal. It’s a family business. 

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Know Your Farmer 

I firmly believe in the concept of “know your farmer.” It was a pleasure talking to owners Larry and his son, Alex. Sunnyland Farms isn’t a nameless faceless corporation with faraway board members making decisions. There’s virtually no automation — each and every package that’s shipped is touched by human hands. There are folks working on the farm, in the kitchens, and at the mail order headquarters that have worked there for generations. Multiple members of the same family work at Sunnyland Farms. As I walked the plant with Alex, he addressed everyone by name. He explained that several factories had closed in the area and they felt it was the right thing for the local economy to do to keep real people in the jobs. Currently, pecan shells are repurposed and burned to save energy and help fuel the plant and Alex is looking to installing solar panels. Sunnyland Farms is a feel good story with good-tasting results. (You can learn more about the Willson family and check out there video here.)

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Georgia Pecans

The photo above of the green pecans in the husks indicates the outer coverings are just about to open and split, meaning the pecans are still ripening, but almost ripe. The photo below of the brown pecans shows that the husks have dried and the pecans are ripe. The Willson family, like most other professional pecan farmers, actually uses a large mechanical shaker to remove the nuts from the tree. Then, they are scooped up with a specialized tractor before they are subsequently sent through a series of cleaners, crackers, and graders. Now, growing up in Georgia — I know pecans. Georgia may be known as “The Peach State” but my home state is the number one producer of pecans in the nation. 

I remember picking up pecans growing up. It was pretty different than the Willson farm set-up. My sister and I would crawl about to fill our bags, the knees of our jeans becoming damp from the dirt. My grandfather had a nutcracker he had attached to a two by four. He’d bridge the apparatus between two chairs on the screened-in porch and place an empty bucket underneath. Methodically, he’d reach in his sack of pecans, jerk the handle, and the shells would shatter. Slowly but surely, he’d fill his bucket with the cracked pecans. Once the pecan shells were cracked, my grandmother would remove the nuts from the shells with metal sticks with curved, pointed ends. Her last step was brushing off any dust with a toothbrush specific to that purpose. The process was tedious, long, and involved — and those were some mighty precious pecans. 

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Mail Order Pecans

Guess what? You don’t have to do that and neither do I! Sunnyland Farms will do the work for you.  I make a habit of buying 10 pounds of pre-shelled pecans every season and keep them in my freezer for use throughout the year. I suggest whole halves as well as a selection of pieces, which are generally cheaper than whole halves. Prices have gone up in the past few years because of the demand for pecans in China, where they are considered a delicacy! Sunnyland Farms offers not only different kinds of pecans, but also other nuts as well including cashews, almonds, macadamia nuts, peanuts, and pistachios. And, just in case you aren’t up to making your own cakes and pies for the holiday season, they’ve got those, too — all handmade and made by scratch. I was there on the day the ladies were baking their famous Crunchy Rum Cake. It smelled absolutely incredible! 

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Heart Healthy Pecans

My new fave  is their pecan meal. I’ve been sprinkling it on our morning oatmeal and it’s a great heart-healthy way to start the day. According to the National Pecan Shellers Association, pecans are high in healthy unsaturated fat and can lower “bad” cholesterol. Just one ounce of pecans provides 10 percent of the Daily Recommended intake of fiber. Pecans are also rich in age defying antioxidants. In fact, research from the USDA shows that pecans are the most antioxidant-rich tree nut and rank among the top 15 foods with the highest levels of antioxidants. That sounds like a pretty good start to the morning to me! 

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Bushels of Pecan Recipes

Pecans are a super versatile tree nut. I find them less bitter than walnuts and more buttery than almonds. I mix them in salads, and use them for crusting fish, meat, and vegetables. They are great in both sweet and savory dishes. Here’s a collection of some of my favorite pecan recipes:

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Savory Pecan Spice Blend

This week I am sharing a recipe for a Savory Pecan Spice Blend. It’s a little out of the box, but I wanted to share something that showcases the extreme versatility of pecans. The blend of pecan meal, cumin, coriander, and sesame seeds is vibrant and fresh — and good and good for you. The Savory Pecan Spice Blend an be used as a crust for lamb, chicken, fish, and atop roasted vegetables. It is also delicious when served as a dip with hearty bread and olive oil. I love it on yogurt, too. Once you make it, you’ll want to use it on everything! 

Bon Appétit, Y’all!



Roast Winter Squash with Savory Pecan Spice Blend

Prep Time 10 minutes
45 minutes
55 minutes
Servings 6
Author Virginia Willis


  • 3 pounds winter squash thickly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup pecan meal
  • 2 tablespooons coriander seeds
  • 2 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
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Disclaimer: When there’s an appropriate mutually beneficial opportunity I wilI create sponsored blog posts. In full disclosure, I was given Sunnyland Farms product to work with for recipe development and compensated for this blog post, as well as social media promotion. 

All photos by Virginia Willis except for the top by Ellen Silverman. 

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