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While Ralph & Karen Voss’ row crop operation flourishes in the summer months of each year, their specialty business takes a lot more time to mature. As the northern-most pecan producers of their scale in the county, the Voss’ pecan trees can take 13 years to produce enough pounds of nuts to turn a profit.
Sitting outside the Pecan Belt in Clinton County, the Voss’ pecan trees can take 13 years to produce enough pounds of nuts to turn a profit.
“If I wasn’t a corn, soybean, and wheat farmer already, I wouldn’t have been able to justify entering the pecan business,” says Ralph. “We had about half the equipment we needed. But most importantly, we needed the income from traditional crops to supplement the pecan trees while they grew to maturity.”
The Voss’ host 150 acres of pecan trees. Some are in neatly spaced groves, and others are spread naturally throughout timber ground.
“When I first started farming and buying land, I left any pecan trees just because I love eating pecans,” says Ralph. “Now we have them all over our properties, and when we got out of the dairy business we planted pecan groves in the pasture ground.”
Much like traditional farming, pecan harvesting has become more mechanized. For the jobs requiring additional labor, Ralph and Karen recruit the help of their family – four generations working side by side.
“During pecan season our three kids, their spouses, and our six grandkids are here constantly,” says Karen. “They show up whenever they can to help harvest and clean the pecans, man the store, and walk the groves picking up sticks.”
Voss Pecans can be purchased at their farm from Nov. 15-Jan. 1 and farmers markets throughout the season from Springfield to Champaign to St. Louis. At the markets, they sell cracked Pawnee pecans – a large nut with a thin shell. They send smaller varieties native to Illinois to a processor in northeast Oklahoma for shelling – the closest federally inspected pecan-specific facility. Once the Voss’ receive their ready-to-use pecans back from the processor, the nuts are sold to grocers, bakeries, and available for purchase online and at the farmers markets and their farm.
“We are able to fill a niche that’s evolving with consumers,” says Ralph. “People care about their food quality and origin, and the health benefits from foods like pecans.”
“I bring photos of our groves and equipment to farmers markets to explain how our operation works,” says Karen. “People love talking to the farmer who grew the food; I make connections and it helps build our following.”
And the Voss’ can’t grow them fast enough. Since it takes so long for trees to reach maturity, Ralph believes their production will triple in the next 15 years. As one of the few Illinois producers, the Voss’ are on the cutting edge of what it takes to grow pecans successfully in Illinois. They travel to local and multi-state venues to share their knowledge and attend national conferences to learn from other growers.
“When I’m not busy with the row crops, I’m tending to the pecan trees. So it’s difficult to attend conferences away from home,” says Ralph. “When we are able to get away, we find value in making connections with our peers. It’s great to have friends to call when I encounter a new problem because they may have the answer.”
Just as the Voss’ struggle to find a day for professional development, it’s rare for them to find time to travel into their local Farm Credit Illinois office – that’s where the on-farm service comes in handy.
“We appreciate Farm Credit’s flexibility; in the years we have worked with the Highland office, I haven’t been there once,” says Ralph. “Don Henrichs, our loan officer, comes here anytime we need to take care of business and that personal service is vital to our success.”
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