Where Heritage & Business Meet, the Choctaw Nation Grows Pecans
He’s referring to the over 1,500 acres of pecan farmland that the Choctaw Nation now owns throughout Southeastern Oklahoma.
In about two years, the Choctaw Nation has gone from an undisclosed amount of native pecan trees spread across their cattle ranches to about 5,000 improved trees, producing and non-producing, and 5,000 to 6,000 native trees. The growth is exponential. And it’s not stopping any time soon.
“We’re uncovering new trees every day as we’re cleaning up. The cattle side is actually bringing more land into production. We’re growing as the brush hog runs,” Doyle McDaniel says.
What started out as just a decision to recover native pecan trees from the Choctaw Nation’s ranches has turned into a multi-level operation that has no end in sight.
This operation began through the support of Choctaw Chief Gary Batton and the Choctaw Nation Tribal Council. Without their approval or backing, these pecan farms would not exist. The Choctaw Nation Division of Commerce took the next steps to turn this idea into reality. This section of the Choctaw Nation provides revenue for the tribe, job opportunities and financial sustainability. Under the Division of Commerce, the Choctaw Nation manages a number of businesses, including gaming sites, resorts, and restaurant franchise.
Under this division is the Division of Commerce Agriculture which manages the tribe’s six cattle ranches, wildlife acreage, and most recently, pecan farms.
So much more goes into these pecan farms than just your typical orchard operation. For many growers, pecan farming provides a livelihood and a calling.
But for the Choctaw Nation, pecan farming is an opportunity to provide for the tribe and a reminder of tribal members’ earliest ancestors, who before developing an agricultural society gathered pecans and other wild plants and hunted local wildlife.
The Choctaw people originally occupied the Southeastern United States, specifically Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Using fire, the earliest Choctaw ancestors shaped their local environment to help wild plant communities thrive. Just a ways north, other Native American peoples began to develop agriculture and domesticate selected plants. Eventually, the Choctaw people adopted agriculture enthusiastically around 1000 AD and are even “recognized as the best agriculturalists of all of the Southeastern Tribes” according to Iti Fabvssa, a monthly column in the Choctaw Nation newspaper that discusses Choctaw culture, life and history.
The spread of ideas contributed to this transition. Over the course of centuries, the Choctaw were introduced to domesticated crops, like beans and corn, by other native groups and, eventually, by Europeans. At the same time, they developed their own and molded their society around agricultural practices and traditions.
“Choctaws were primarily farmers, and they traded a lot along the Mississippi river too,” says Shannon McDaniel, Choctaw Nation’s Executive Director of Agriculture. “They traded wild game and produce from their gardens for whatever they needed.”
Not only did the tribe itself share large community fields, but families also had small, personal plots between their homes, where they grew squash, tomatoes, beans and corn.
“Most of their diet consisted of corn. Corn was the main staple that helped them make it through the winter. They could store it, and it didn’t run out,” says Shannon McDaniel. “So, a lot of our foods are derived from corn and cornmeal.”
In addition to using ground corn in many meals, he says they ate a lot of native growing berries and fruit and grew sugar cane as well, which was used as a naturally derived sweetener. Shannon McDaniel used grape dumplings — “a kind of a dessert, if you will” — as an example of how these agricultural products were used on a daily basis.
Choctaw agricultural traditions continued to shift and evolve as the people came into contact with outside influences.
But in 1830, the Choctaw’s lives changed radically. After about a millennia of living in the Southeastern United States, the Choctaw people ceded approximately 11,000,000 acres of ancestral land in present day Mississippi to the United States government in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek to avoid warfare and to ensure autonomy. This was the first removal treaty under the Indian Removal Act, initiating the infamous Trail of Tears.
About 20,000 Choctaws emigrated to Indian Territory, majority of which is now Oklahoma, over the course of three journeys. Although there is not an exact record of how many Choctaws died along the way, historians estimate that more than 2,000 Choctaws died, while trying to make the journey to their new land. Once there, they formed the Choctaw Nation.
As a way to support the tribe, the Choctaw Nation slowly developed businesses and other forms of revenue. Pecan farms were another opportunity to go forward.
Shannon McDaniel says the pecan project began in August 2015 by “restoring the natives on properties the tribe had had for quite some time.”
To him, the entire process revolved around discovering something that had been there all along.
“No one was harvesting anything. No one was adding value to anything. We weren’t creating anything that was an agricultural product and bringing it back to the tribe,” he explains. “We’re looking at what does well on our properties and what has done well in the past.”
After examining their ranchland and finally taking stock of all the native pecan trees on those properties, Shannon McDaniel says it was hard not to go into that direction.
With pecans’ profitability and their natural prosperity in the region, the idea was obvious.
“For the longest time, we’ve had native trees. They were just on our cattle ranches. [So] we had cattle ranches with pecan trees. And we had a custom harvester come in and finally, somebody said ‘Hey, we have enough here to buy our own equipment and create jobs,’” Doyle McDaniel, Tree Production Manager, says.
This realization sparked a desire within the Division of Commerce to see just how far the tribe could go. With the native trees already established and with more being uncovered every day, the tribe recognized an opportunity to diversify and took it.
In February 2016, the pecan department was formed. Doyle McDaniel had been working on the wildlife side of Commerce, which covers about 20,000 acres. He was brought over to manage tree production on all the farms. He says he didn’t know much about pecans, at the time, but has been working with Charles Rohla, Ph.D., from the Noble Research Institute and Mike Smith, Ph.D., a retired Oklahoma State University pecan specialist, to catch up.
Steve Swigert, the Senior Director of Agriculture, was also requested to join the pecan team. Having worked with cattle for years, Swigert had the background and skill set to guide orchard operations.
“We’ve hit the ground running pretty much,” Doyle McDaniel adds.
The two have led the charge for Choctaw Pecan Farms, which currently consists of three different pecan farms: Garvin, East Red River, and West Red River. Garvin has about 1,150 trees that were planted in 2016. These young trees are growing fast, and Doyle McDaniel expects some pecans within a year or so. At this orchard, they are partnering with the Noble Research Institute to conduct a study on soil health and cover crops.
The other two orchards were bought more recently. East Red River farm is approximately 100 acres and 40 years old. The newest addition, West Red River, is a 70-year-old orchard with about 170 acres of trees that the team closed on in September. It’s a healthy orchard, says Doyle McDaniel, but it needs a bit of clean up.
The pecans harvested from these orchards are then sold through 18 Choctaw travel plazas in Southeastern Oklahoma as well as some local grocery stores.
“The Commerce side of the Choctaw Nation is a billion dollar plus business, so our portion of it is not huge. It’s huge for us, but it’s not huge for the Choctaw Nation,” Swigert says. “But it is an emphasis for the future. Agriculture is one of the ways to diversify from the gaming side…to the travel plazas and that kind of thing.”
This diversification isn’t just about making money for the sake of making money though. Every dollar made through the Commerce division comes back to the second side of the Choctaw Nation: Tribal Services.
“We have our own health care systems. We have social services, child care, adoption. There’s a lot that I’m going to miss, but there are several services we provide for with business,” Doyle McDaniel says.
Without the Commerce side, the tribe would be unable to provide the necessary services to care for and assist the Choctaw people.
It’s almost like a positive feedback look. Produce pecans, put in retail stores, sell pecans, make money, invest money in production and pass along the rest to the tribe. The cycle builds itself. And because the Choctaw Nation has control over almost every step, it’s something unlike most agriculture businesses.
“For me, historically being an ag economist, it’s a very neat and cool concept. To make a difference with the employees and the tribe, and to be able to do what we’re doing in agriculture—it’s a unique set up,” Swigert says.
But the whole process hasn’t been without challenges.
“We have a lot of scab pressure out here,” Doyle McDaniel says. “We’re more of the climate with Georgia growers than with Oklahoma growers.”
He specifies that on the scab scale model from the Oklahoma Mesonet, a system of environmental monitoring stations, their area of Oklahoma averages twice as much scab pressure as everyone else.
Crows are another challenge that comes in during harvest and stay. But Doyle McDaniel and Swigert said these weren’t unexpected. They knew, like all pecan growers, that these were just some of the challenges that they’d have to face.
Overall, the future seems bright and a top-end out of sight. Swigert says the executive goal is to expand by 2,000 trees each year and to ultimately produce 1 million pounds a year.
With an executive goal to produce 1 million pounds per year, the tribe will probably stay aggressive on expanding the pecan farms, says Swigert. This means bringing in more trees, producing more pecans and just getting more settled.
What’s next? Well, that’s an easy answer for Doyle McDaniel and Swigert. Within the next few years, they plan to build their own processing facility and to control every step of production.
It’s a big task to some. A seemingly insurmountable goal to others. But based off the story Swigert shared of when they bought the West Red River orchard, the path seems clear and sure.
“The property we just closed on, that one was just a conversation between Doyle, the owner and me. He asked, ‘What are your goals for the future?’” Swigert recalls with a laugh. “He goes, ‘Well, do you guys want to buy the place?’ And a year later, the place was bought.”