Consumers shopped early and often for pecans as the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the specialty crop market, according to Clinton County specialty growers Ralph and Karen Voss.

On Wednesday, Ralph pushed to harvest pecans on high ground and hoped to finish the next day before turning to trees in some river bottom ground. Since starting harvest Nov. 3, Voss had picked about two-thirds of his pecans, although a couple rainstorms caused interruptions. Yields have been good, despite expectations 2020 would be an off year following last year’s strong production. Pecan trees bear a big crop one year and a reduced crop the next, the farmer explained.

“This is crunch time,” Ralph said. “As fast as we can get them (pecans) harvested, they go out the door.”

Ralph and Karen Voss grow pecans on 140 acres and manage another 110 acres near Carlyle. They also grow corn, soybeans and wheat. Voss Pecans operates an on-farm store open seven days a week until Jan. 1, offers online ordering and shipping, and sells to grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants and at farmers’ markets. Visit Voss Pecans online and follow the farm on Facebook.

During the pandemic, consumers bought pecans earlier than usual and continued, changing the usual pattern of more seasonal purchases, Karen said.

“This year, we kept sending pecans all year. We were sending them out all the time,” she added.

On the flip side, the Vosses lost bakery and restaurant markets when those businesses were forced to close earlier during the pandemic.

But grocery store orders increased and that continues. “Stores really picked up the slack (from other market orders) the last two and a half months. It started getting crazy about September,” Ralph said. He estimated increased store and consumer orders have offset those lost to restaurants and bakeries.

The Vosses have implemented COVID safety precautions to keep themselves, employees and customers safe at the on-farm store that opened Nov. 15 for the season. Business hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Customers must wear masks and follow safety guidelines. They will find plexiglass shields, employees wearing masks, limits on the number of shoppers inside the store at one time and different shopping options. In addition to purchases inside the store, customers may use a pickup window, a sales counter in the garage or opt for curbside service.

“A lot of our (on-farm) customers are older people and are being careful,” Karen explained.

Voss harvests pecans with a tractor-pulled tree shaker that grabs a trunk and shakes until pecans fall. More than half of his crop is sent to a custom shelling business for ready-to-use pecans. Pecans cracked on the farm are washed, dried and sent through seven electric cracking machines that open nuts of varying sizes.

“It takes the whole family to help with a specialty crop,” Ralph said. “We need a lot of extra people to help.”

The work includes picking up sticks that fall during harvest. “We pick up a lot of sticks,” Karen added.

In addition to the their children, the Vosses' helpers include grandchildren, who already share a keen interest in the family’s specialty crop even at a young age. Karen described how one granddaughter at age 2 correctly identified a pecan she found in her yard and a 10-year-old grandson who had texted his grandmother a pecan photo and agreed to sell the nut to his grandfather.

Pecan connoisseurs take heart. The youngest Voss Pecans generation appears ready to carry on the family tradition.