The South's Treasured Family Trees
Take a drive along the back roads that cut across the southern half of Georgia, and sooner or later, you're bound to happen upon a pecan orchard—you'll know it by the tidy rows of sprawling pecan trees planted by the hundreds. Many of these date back more than 100 years, and harvest after harvest, these Georgia groves make the state the largest pecan producer in the nation.
No one knows these orchards, or the ins and outs of the South's beloved tree nut, better than Putt Wetherbee, a fifth-generation pecan grower from South Georgia. He grew up watching his father, Frank Wetherbee, revolutionize the industry—boldly introducing new practices in pecan farming and meticulously researching new selections. "If you wanted to spend any time with Dad, you went to work with him," Putt explains. "They didn't have much pecan equipment back then, so he was constantly trying to figure out the best way to do things. We were always inventing or tweaking technology." In the late sixties, Frank became the first farmer in Georgia to irrigate a pecan orchard. "People actually laughed at him," Putt says. "But today, no one would plant an orchard without irrigating."
After too many summers spent atop one of only two mechanical harvesters in the state (yet another of his father's endeavors), Putt set out to pursue a different path. He attended college in Charleston, South Carolina, and started a career in the business world. "I worked a lot, got an MBA, and learned what misery was," he says. "Little did I know, those 20 years were paving the way for me to come back to pecans."
And so as it often happens in the South, Putt returned to his roots—ones that figuratively and literally run deep. Some of the very trees he harvests from are the ones planted by his namesake—his great-great-great-uncle, a planter by the name of Francis Flagg Putney—as early as 1905. In 2014, Putt took over the family business—Schermer Pecans, which grows and packages fresh-like-you've-never-had-before pecans for consumers in the South and all over the world.
As technology evolves, selections change, and orchards grow and shrink, the pecan remains inherently the same—a savory and versatile Southern staple that's a fixture in so many dishes and desserts. "It's something significant we can still get our hands on that ties us back to our traditions," he says. "Our grandparents and great-grandparents did this, and it's how they made their living. It's where we come from."