Have you heard the story of Ben Littlepage?
What? Who is Ben Littlepage?!? My, my, you must not be very involved in the American pecan industry. Have a seat and let me tell you a story about Mr. Ben Littlepage.
Mr. Ben Littlepage was born in Monroe, Louisiana on Sept. 24, 1931. He was the second son of Lavinia McGuire Littlepage McNeely and Joseph Sydney Littlepage. The family was involved in farming and ranching on the Ouachita River but migrated to Colfax and worked with the McNeely brothers in their operation. Ben graduated from Colfax High School in 1948 and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Engineering in 1954 from Louisiana State University. Ben continued to serve on the LSU Alumni Council for many years.
As a returning Korean War veteran, he began to farm in Grant Parish. Early in his farming career, he started purchasing land and planting pecan trees in organized orchards. He also removed other hardwoods from around the existing native pecans on the land to improve their growth and production. He tested new varieties and management techniques and started a relationship with LSU pecan researchers that would continue over the next 60 years. The notable list includes John A. Cox, Warren Meadows, William Young, Earl Puls, Jere McBride, David Boethel, Richard O’Barr, L. J. Grauke, Randy Sanderlin, Mike Hall, and myself, Charlie Graham.
Ben was active in many organizations associated with pecan production. The Federated Pecan Growers of North America was formed in 1950 to lead communication between the pecan industry and the U.S. Congress for the betterment of pecans and their production. Over the years, the council morphed into the National Pecan Growers Council in 1995 and then to the U.S. Pecan Growers Council in 2015. Over that span, the organization has had 5 secretaries, beginning with John A. Cox and followed by Warren Meadows, Earl Puls, Jere McBride, and Charlie Graham. But the man that ties all of those entities together, the man who has weathered all of the changes over the years is Ben Littlepage. He was the rock, doing what was necessary to drive the organization forward—always with the goal of improving the pecan industry for everyone. He served as President, Vice President, and Treasurer for many years, and was always in the background supporting other members.
In fact, I think he preferred to be the strong presence in the back, out of the spotlight. I can still see him huddled in a corner with a couple of members before the meeting started, saying “This is what we need to get done and this is the guy that can make it happen.” Even as the USPGC’s mission expanded from working domestically to promoting and marketing U.S. pecans internationally by leveraging funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Foreign Agricultural Service, it did so with Ben’s full support. He was also an early supporter of a Federal Marketing Order long before the need was recognized by the majority of the country’s pecan growers. The USPGC will forever be indebted to icons such as Mr. Ben Littlepage for his love of the pecan industry.
If there was a pecan meeting—SEPGA, WPGA, NPSA, Tri-State, LPGA, TPGA, etc.—you could usually count on Ben and his wife, Kathryn, being there. I often thought about asking him for his itinerary before a meeting because I knew I would be asked several times before I even checked in—“Hi Charlie, do you know if Mr. Ben and Ms. Kathryn are here yet?” From the moment they arrived until the moment they left, Ben was usually talking pecans with someone. Whoever coined the phrase “Behind every great man is a great woman” must have known Ms. Kathryn. The people she has fed at the farmhouse in Colfax would be difficult to count. I think if someone stopped by to talk to Ben and it was within two hours of lunchtime or suppertime, they were usually invited to come up to the house to eat. Kathryn would always “throw something together” as she puts it, and if you left hungry, it was your fault.
But even if you stopped by the farm, you had not been fully indoctrinated into “Littlepage Culture” unless you had gone on the “two-hour farm tour.” Afterward, you would have a much better understanding of opening and closing gates and the art of waving other vehicles around you while you were stopped in the highway discussing a pecan tree on the fence row. You would also develop an appreciation for the history of farming, Colfax, Louisiana (including the cannon in the front yard), and Ben’s family. And for sure, you would learn a lot about growing pecans.
I was fortunate to get to take this trip several times each year, but I think Ben’s favorite time for me to visit was right after grafting season. We would be riding along in the pickup and Ben would look over at me, smile and say, “I only had time to graft about 150 trees this spring. You see that tree over there? I thought I would show you the one tree that didn’t take; it will be quicker than showing you the ones that did take. How well did you do grafting this year?” Yes, I think we often accomplished more bouncing around in that truck than we ever did at an official meeting.
Ben kept a watchful eye on the pecan industry in his beloved state of Louisiana. In the early 1970s, the USDA made the decision to cease operating the pecan research substation near Shreveport, which had been opened in 1930. Ben Littlepage was one of a group of Louisiana pecan growers that traveled to Washington, D.C. to try to persuade the Louisiana congressional delegation to support a transfer of the USDA facility to the state of Louisiana. Because of this group, the 100-acre property, which included orchards, buildings, and equipment, was given to the state, and in 1973, the facility officially became the Louisiana State University AgCenter Pecan Research Extension Station.
The foresight of Ben Littlepage and others led to the establishment of the only land-grant university research station dedicated solely to pecans in the United States. The LSU Pecan Station supported the pecan industry in Louisiana and the country’s southcentral pecan production region for over 40 years. On a personal note, a former faculty member, Randy Sanderlin, stated that he and many others had the opportunity for a wonderful career at the LSU Pecan Station that would not have happened without the efforts of Ben to have the station transferred to LSU. Any positive results that came out of that research station during the succeeding 40 years have Ben’s fingerprints on it.
Ben was active in the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, serving as a board member on Advisory Boards and as the Pecan Chairman for many years. Ben sat as a charter and board member, pecan procurement chairmen and president of the Louisiana Pecan Festival, which started in Colfax in 1969. Many special guests participated in the festival including Fess Parker, James Drury, Buck Taylor, Dale Robertson, Ken Curtis, Sorrell Booke (Boss Hogg), and former Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis.
Ben was a visionary, but I am not sure if he saw visions of barge loads of pecans going down the river or boatloads of people coming up the river to the Pecan Festival in Colfax. But in 1976, he joined the Red River Navigation Project to develop the river as a navigable and recreation entity for the region. He served as Executive Director from 1986 to 1996 and saw the Red River open to barge traffic and fishing during this time. Ben received the Commander’s Award from the United States Army Corps of Engineers for outstanding service to their group and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.
Over the years, Ben received many accolades for his service to the agricultural industry and never lost his intellectual curiosity and joy of agriculture. The breadth of the awards demonstrates the sweeping impact he had coast to coast. In 1969, Ben and his wife, Kathryn, were awarded the Outstanding Young Farmer for Louisiana by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. In 1976 through 1977, he was recognized by Gamma Sigma Delta Honorary Agriculture Fraternity for his work. The National Pecan Shellers Association presented him the “Superior Service Award” in 2000. He received an award in 2004 from the National Pecan Growers Council for “Distinguished Leadership and Dedicated Service 1965-2004.” In 2007, the Georgia Pecan Growers Association presented him with an award, “In Appreciation for Years of Service to the Georgia Pecan Industry.” In 2010, Ben received a plaque from the LSU AgCenter for 37 years of service and support of the LSU AgCenter Pecan Station. And his unwavering support continued until his death.
I can picture Mr. Ben Littlepage looking over the vast orchards in Heaven, turning with a big smile on his face, and saying, “I think we need to graft all of these trees to make them produce better.” My friend, you will be greatly missed. I think I can speak for the hundreds, probably thousands of people whose path crossed Ben’s path during his life, we bid you a fond and loving farewell. For all that you have done for your family, your community, and the pecan industry— Thank you, my friend, our friend, and great job!
Update: In December 2018, the American Pecan Council passed a resolution recognizing September 24 as Ben Littlepage Day in the pecan industry.