The beloved pecan is officially the state nut of Louisiana. Why now?
There is an age-old debate about how to pronounce “pecan.” The pronunciation of the word changes across state lines, and sometimes even depending on how a person is using the word.
But in Louisiana, there’s not much debate. It’s “puh-kaan,” as could be heard in the Louisiana Legislature this session when lawmakers unanimously voted to make the pecan the official state nut.
Gov. John Bel Edwards then signed the bill last month, making the designation official. And those in the pecan industry gathered at the Capitol earlier this month for a ceremonial signing.
Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said a good friend of his from the Pecan Growers Association approached him about bringing the bill this session. Harris, who said he loves pecans, quickly agreed.
“I was shocked that it wasn’t already the state nut, so I was more than happy to run the bill,” Harris said.
The reason Harris was shocked, he said, is because “everybody loves pecans.” For Harris, and many others who enjoy pecans, it was easy to get behind this bill and an obvious way to support what they feel is a significant industry in the state.
But a designation such as this — one that many states have for trees, fruits, even nuts — does not guarantee any measurable economic impact on pecan sales. It’s also worth mentioning that a pecan isn’t technically a nut, according to Michael Polozola, a state fruit and nut specialist with the LSU Ag Center.
Plus, Louisiana isn’t even the country’s biggest producer of pecans —- that’s Georgia. The pecan is also their official state nut. In fact, it’s the official state nut in several other states, including Alabama and Arkansas. It’s the health nut in Texas and one of four state nuts in California. And most of those states produce more pecans than Louisiana.
Pecans are still plentiful in Louisiana. Polozola estimates there are 20,000 acres of pecan production in Louisiana. He also said the state produces between five and 15 million pounds of pecans each year. And according to the LSU Ag Center, pecan production contributes about $12 million to the Louisiana economy each year.
Still, the bill was mostly symbolic and a way to show support for the pecan industry. And for those in the industry, the designation felt important.
“I'm in the pecan industry. I mean, I'm up to my chin in it,” said Jady Regard, the Chief Nut Officer of the Cane River Pecan Company in New Iberia. “And so anytime we have any positive news in the state of Louisiana to promote or market pecans, we need to hang our hat on that.”
Regard’s family has been in the pecan industry for 54 years. After his father died, Regard left his job with the Chicago Bears to come home and take over the family company.
It was an easy decision to come back, he said — not just because pecans have been part of his family for decades, but for Regard, there’s no prettier sight than a pecan orchard.
“I’ve had a great time, and I love it. And I’m one of very few people in this business, which I like that, too,” Regard said. “When I’m in the room, usually I’m the only pecan guy in the house.”
The pecan is also significant to Louisiana culture and has a deep history in the state. Polozola feels that’s the main reason lawmakers made the pecan the official state nut this session.
“We're actually within the native range of pecans within Louisiana,” he said. “So we have a richness of genetic diversity, but also as part of our cultural history, it's just part of the fabric of our state.”
Pecans tend to grow along Louisiana’s rivers. But the tree owes its large-scale production to the genius of an enslaved man named Antoine, who figured out how to graft pecan trees to grow a consistent crop of nuts.
Polozola compared grafting to an organ transplant. It’s when you take a piece of one pecan tree and transplant it onto the root of another tree to produce a similar crop. That was first done at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana.
Beyond its history in Louisiana, the pecan is a staple ingredient in dishes like pies and casseroles, especially during the holiday season. Tourists flock to shops like Loretta’s Authentic Pralines or Aunt Sally’s Pralines for a taste of the sugary pecan treat. And in early November, pecan lovers across the state gather for the annual Louisiana Pecan Festival, complete with food, carnival rides, music and of course, lots of pecans.
Although Louisiana is home to several other types of nuts — for example, chinquapins and black walnuts — none seem to compare to the pecan, with its economic and cultural influence. And for Regard and other pecan growers and lovers, that’s enough to justify its new status as the official state nut.
Regard even plans to use the pecan’s official new status in marketing materials. On the day the bill was signed, he created a new graphic for his company promoting the pecan as the state nut.
“It’s a mark of distinction for us,” Regard said. “It lets people know that of all the nuts out there, this is the one that Louisiana settled on. And why not?”