Duke Pecans embraces holiday season

Bill Duke of Duke Pecans (Photo by STEVE ROGERS, DTL)
Staff Writer

It’s a non-descript building on Brame Avenue about halfway between Highway 45 Alternate and West Point High School. It’s only a little more than a stone’s throw from downtown.

But as a steady stream of people flow in and out Tuesday afternoon, it’s clear most of them don’t need directions because they’ve been there before. In many cases, they’ve been there year after year since it opened in the 1970s.

Even before that, a few old timers grew up going to the family’s original store.

It’s Duke Pecans and welcome to their busiest week of the year. Virtually every Thanksgiving tradition includes a pecan pie somewhere along the way. In North Mississippi, that translates into Duke Pecans.

The family sometimes downplays just how intertwined their business is to their customers and those traditions. But while they won’t openly profess to a quiet inner sense of pride, it slips out when they don’t even really know it.

“We get some older people who come in here and talk about how they used to go to my parents’ store,” says T.A. Duke, whose parents started a pecan trading business in the 1930s and built the location on Brame Avenue and got into full-fledged pecan buying, selling and shelling there in the 1970s.

Today, T.A. still scurries around handling the customers, some he recognizes, some he doesn’t.

“I guess in a way it makes you realize how you fit into traditions,” T.A. says before handing many of the questions off to his son Bill, who handles much of the PR work and business operations now.

“Throughout North Mississippi, we’ve got people who visit here every year,” Bill says when asked about regular customers and the importance their product plays in their lives at this time of year “We’ve got people who used to live here that we ship them to every year, people who’ve driven through and call to get them every year.” If that’s not tradition enough in this tradition-rich time of year, customers gush with their memories -- past, present and future.

“My family has been getting them for years. I didn’t know there was anything else besides Duke Pecans. And my children won’t either,” said Ann Stevens as she made room on the backseat of her SUV for her purchase.

“We pick them up as a family and bring them here to have them cracked. We’ve got four trees. It’s not the same in years when they don’t produce. Then we shell them together. We started doing that with my grandparents a long time ago,” added Art Armistead. “We pick ‘em up and sell ‘em for a little extra money,” added one woman as she lugged in a five-gallon bucket filled to the brim with the fat brown and black wooden shells. Tuesday, it was about an equal mix of folks coming in to sell and others buying ahead of Thanksgiving meals.

“It’s not Thanksgiving without a pecan pie with Duke Pecans,” Susan Morris said simply.

Bill Duke recognizes all the ways customers share the product. He says older customers still like to buy pecans cracked but still in the shell. They enjoy picking them out.

“Stress relief,” one visitor says, recalling his father shelling pecans for years at Christmas and giving quart bags as gifts.

“The younger people prefer to have them shelled already,” Bill says, noting how the art of pecans subtly mirrors shifting social trends.

He won’t guess how many pounds the company ships or sells each year, much less this week. The harvest starts in early November when rain and wind and colder weather “knock the fruit to the ground,” T.A. says.

The really busy time is this week, with customers primarily wanting fresh pecans. After Thanksgiving, business shifts more to gift packs perfect for Christmas gifts.

While hundreds, if not thousands, will savor the fruit in a favorite pie during the next month, Bill prefers his pecans a little simpler.

“Just a handful a day is perfect,” he says, referencing the health benefits of such a diet, benefits that are only now beginning to get widespread attention. When pressed, he opted for “salted and roasted” as a second choice.

He also doesn’t have a favorite pecan pie recipe or even recommend one. “There are plenty of good ones out there apparently,” he says.

As for his family’s own Thanksgiving. “We’ll be closed. We don’t really do that much. eat turkey and sleep it off like everyone else,” Bill says, knowing that the Christmas rush looms.

Most people who have pecan trees in their yards are familiar with the cyclical swing of one-year on, one-year off for production. And even the national markets once reflected that trend with harvests some years doubling the previous year before sliding back again.

But growers in big production states like Georgia apparently have learned to prune their trees each year to keep them from “tiring out,” Bill says, leveling off annual production figures.

In North Mississippi, that’s amounted to about one million pounds a year the last three years. He expects about the same this year.

Meanwhile, prices are up slightly as the market for pecans grows in Asia, especially China. The laws of supply and demand are taking hold as about 30 percent of the American crop is now exported.

And expanding the crop isn’t easy. It takes 10 years for a pecan tree to grow to the point where it will produce fruit.

But while Bill Duke tracks all that information and much more on spread sheets on his computer, it’s still all about local people and meeting their pecans.

When asked whether they ever thought about really expanding into other than the few things they do peripherally, his answer was simple, “Not really.”