The pecan is the only commercially grown nut in Texas and is native to most of the state's river valleys. The tree, one of the most widely distributed trees in the state, is native to 152 counties and is grown commercially in some thirty additional counties. It is also widely used as a dual-purpose yard tree. The size and quality of pecans are influenced by the number of leaves per nut. More leaves are needed for large nuts. Pecan trees begin growing in early spring and continue in early fall; deep, loose, and well-watered soil is conducive to growth. Peccan is Algonquian for "hard-shelled nut." In 1919 the Thirty-sixth Legislature declared the pecan the state tree, and eight years later the Fortieth Legislature reaffirmed the decision.
There is evidence that the pecan tree grew in the Texas region during prehistoric times. Records indicate that the nut was exported from the state before 1860. Exports from Galveston alone amounted to 1,525 bushels in 1850 and 13,224 in 1854. In 1866, 8,962 barrels were shipped from Indianola, and 1,500 barrels from Port Lavaca. The value of the pecan, however, was apparently not fully recognized for many decades, for many trees were cut to make way for cotton, and the wood was used for making wagon parts and farm implements. By 1904 pecan trees had been cut to such an extent that laws to prevent their complete destruction were considered. The financial value of the crop was soon recognized, and pecans became one of the leading money crops in the state.
Texas pecan production in 1910 was 5,832,267 pounds. In 1914 all but eight counties reported pecan trees growing within their boundaries. The leading pecan-producing counties in 1926 were Brown, Bell, Bexar, Burnet, Comanche, Dallas, Erath, Gillespie, Gonzales, Grayson, and Guadalupe. These counties produced over 250,000 pounds of pecans each. Exports from Texas during the 1920s ranged from twenty-five to 500 carloads a year. During the years of light production practically the entire crop was used in the state, but during the years of heavy production about 75 percent of the crop was exported to northern and eastern markets, principally to shellers and candy makers. The pecan crop in 1932 totaled 19,500,000 pounds and was valued at $975,000. The average annual production for the 1936–46 period was 26,815,000 pounds. The 1948 pecan crop, the third largest on record, totaled 43,000,000 pounds and was valued at $4,860,000, or 11.3 cents a pound. The 1949 crop was estimated at 36,000,000 pounds. The 1945 census estimated that there were 3,212,633 pecan trees in Texas. The Lone Star State produced about 30 percent of the nation's crop during these years and usually led the states in pecan production.
Pecans were shelled on a commercial basis before 1900 by G. A. Duerler of San Antonio, who used railroad spikes for cracking the pecans and sacking needles for picking out the meats. The pecan-shelling industry grew gradually, and more mechanical devices were used in the plants. During the Great Depression an increase in cheap labor encouraged hand shelling, and many home shelling plants emerged. These small plants soon became a threat to the mechanized plants and forced them also to employ hand labor in order to compete. During the depression period 12,000 to 15,000 people were employed in the shelling industry in San Antonio alone, where several hundred plants were operating (see PECAN-SHELLERS' STRIKE). In 1938, when wage increases were required by the Fair Labor Standards Act, unskilled labor became unprofitable, and the use of machinery again became necessary. A few fully mechanized modern plants soon replaced the hundreds of home shelling plants. By the 1950s shelling plants were located at San Antonio, Tyler, Comanche, Clarksville, Taylor, Denison, Fort Worth, Dallas, and San Angelo. A plant at Weatherford in Parker County processed shell and other pecan wastes into oil and tannin for use in tannic acid.
By the 1950s pecans were being divided into two general kinds, natives and improved varieties. Most Texas-grown pecans were native and were often shelled commercially before marketing, while the improved varieties were more often sold in the shell. In the 1950s Texas led the nation in total number of pecan trees and was usually first in annual production. The 1954 crop totaled 22 million pounds and was valued at $5,886,000. The 1960 crop comprised more than 21 percent of the nation's total crop. That year 2,000,000 trees on nearly 16,000 farms produced over 8½ million pounds of pecans valued at $8,600,000.
The state's pecan industry continued to develop during the 1960s due to the increased cultivation of improved varieties, the increased use of irrigation, and the development of a mechanical harvester. The 1964 census reported a total of 1,875,906 pecan trees (one-third improved varieties) on 11,074 farms. The 1965 crop was a record 62 million pounds valued at $11,000,000. Leading pecan-producing counties during this decade were Gonzales, San Saba, Bell, Hood, and Guadalupe. San Antonio was the principle marketing center for Texas pecans.
During the early 1970s the commercial planting of pecans was greatly accelerated in Central and West Texas with the irrigation of many new orchards. Many new plantings were being established under trickle irrigation systems. Two factors that greatly increased yields in these years were the development and use of new pecan varieties and many county and regional pecan-grading demonstrations. Texas varieties include Western, Desirable, Wichita, Choctaw, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Sioux, Caddo, Burkett, and a number of others. In 1972 the state production was a huge 75,000,000 pounds valued at $30,780,000. Texas ranked second in the nation in production in 1978, producing 22,000,000 pounds valued at $20,160,000, or 91.6 cents a pound. Leading counties in 1978 in production were Hood, El Paso, San Saba, Mills, Bell, Guadalupe, Gonzales, and Comanche.
Pecans are gathered by mechanical shakers. Some growers spread sheets under trees to catch the pecans, and some use sweep machines to gather them. Pecan trees are susceptible to several insect pests such as casebearers, shuckworms, weevils, aphids, and webworms. Crows are also destructive. The trees are frequently struck by lightning. Pecan crops vary substantially from year to year.
In 1984 Texas ranked second nationally in pecan production; 25,000,000 pounds were produced that year, valued at $22,500,000. Leading Texas counties in production in 1984 were Hood, El Paso, Pecos, San Saba, Mills, Comanche, Wharton, and Gonzales. By the early 1990s a Texas Pecan Producers Board existed, and a Texas Pecan Growers Association, organized in 1921, ran annual pecan meetings at the state level.