In southern Peru, pecans are the new export option

How does a pecan grow?

The pecan tree is leafy, grows to 40 meters and can live for 100 years. It requires a lot of care and good feeding so that its branches grow solid and can hold the fruit, which takes years to grow. If you want a quality pecan, the tree cannot grow in the wild.

When in 1990, Juan Carlos Santhome first saw the small pecan trees that had been planted in his family’s Ica estate, he was caught up in the asparagus boom. Some advised him to forget those little trees and dedicate his time to asparagus. But he decided to keep the trees. In that moment he thought that these trees could remain in his family for four generations — and time has proven him correct.

The Bellavista estate, surrounded today by 2,500 pecan trees planted in 46 hectares, is also one of the oldest and most traditional in pisco production. (It used to make 300 thousand liters per year in the ’40s and its owners are currently working on rebuilding the cellar which was affected by the 2007 earthquake). It is located in the district of San Juan in the northern area of the Ica valley and currently owned by Doña Ida Bernales and her sons Victor and Juan Carlos.

Juan Carlos, who co-owns the estate with his brother Victor and mother, Ida Bernales, has made pecans the estate’s main economic activity. “It offers good options since it is semi-perishable and can wait and achieve better prices on the market,” he says. 

Increasing yields
The Bellavista estate produces 2,000 kilograms of pecans per hectare, although they hope to increase yield to 4,000 kilos per hectare in three or four months through better standarization. (The 4,000 kilo yield is normal in Mexico, which is second in the world for pecan production. The United States is the first one in terms of production and also in consumption.)

The estate uses a mechanized process for collecting the pecans.

Photos by Elsa Estremadoyro

In Peru, besides Ica, pecan trees are grown in Chincha and Huaral, although in a different variety. In Bellavista, the harvest is done mechanically with a machine that grabs the tree by the trunk and shakes it for two minutes, causing a literal shower of pecans. This is done in the months of June and July, while the pruning is in August. Manual harvesting represents risks for young men must limb up to the top of the trees and frequently do not wear security belts. Also, when they hit the branches with stick, they damage the crops for next year, which can affect production.

Challenges faced
Another problem that the crop faces, and the reason why the estate is surrounded by three-meter-tall walls, is theft. Juan Carlos says that he has been forced to invest large amounts of money on security staff who make rounds in the pecan forest, accompanied by rottweilers and mastiffs.

Pests and fungi that eat the roots are also common and are fought with fungi. Even though the market does not demand organic crops, there is respect for the environment. To this end, they feed the tree with earthworm humus and nutrients made from the fallen leaves and branches.

Where’s the market?
The Santhome family is among the top five largest pecan producers in the country. Seventy percent of their production goes to the U.S., Germany and Asia. The latter is the primary market, where the nut is sent before shelling, since there exists a belief, especially in China, that a pecan with a double point means good luck and a large pecan grants longevity.

The remaining thirty percent is sold in Peru through super markets and snack companies, bakeries and deli shops. The shelling is done manually, mainly by women who earn twice if they open the shell without breaking the nut.