When Columbia County residents hit the grocery store for cookies, ice cream or candy with pecans, it is likely those nuts were processed through a Harlem plant.
"We probably have a pecan in it," said Ruth Tracy, the CEO of Tracy-Luckey Co. Inc., which shells millions of pounds of pecans each year for sale to large food manufacturers.
Tracy said she's excited to the see the shelling of a fresh crop begin a few weeks early this year. Shelling began at about 4 a.m. Oct. 30, and workers at the downtown Harlem plant shelled about 120,000 pounds in the first week. Shelling should continue at least through September, Tracy said.
Normally, pecans don't start falling off the tree until the first two weeks of November, meaning Tracy-Luckey and other shellers don't usually buy the crops from pecan growers and begin cracking shells until near the end of November. Tracy-Luckey gets some of the earlier crops from farms that use mechanical "shakers" to harvest the pecans.
Tracy said she hopes that by the end of shelling, nearly 8 million pounds of in-shell pecans will be processed through the plant - a two-story brick building on Harlem's main street.
"Most people who see the building have no idea what goes on here," Tracy said.
The company was founded in 1927 by Tracy's grandfather, Francis M. Tracy, who started shelling pecans in a converted garage with his parents, Arthur M. and Ruth R. Tracy. A former mayor of Harlem, Mr. Tracy, now in his 90s, still comes to work every day, she said.
The company has grown from shelling 20,000 pounds of pecans to processing millions of pounds per year. The company began candy-coating and roasting pecans in the 1970s and used the nuts to produce confections.
Unlike many companies in the technology age, Tracy-Luckey prides itself on personal customer service to its loyal nationwide customers, Tracy said. The company's core of customers is east of the Mississippi River but as far north as Canada.
"We have a customer that buys 40 cases at a time and another that buys a full 40,000-pound truckload," Tracy said. "We have customers that buy one case at a time. We take care of them just the same."
Tracy-Luckey pecans are sold to several River Street candy shops in Savannah, Ga., several ice cream companies such as Dairy Fresh and Greenwood, and lots of smaller local producers.
Hugh Greene owns Pecans Unlimited in Augusta, which provides gift-packaged tins of nuts and other candies during the holiday season. He's been ordering pecans from Tracy-Luckey since 1985
"(They are) excellent," Greene said. "Great customer service."
Like most Tracy-Luckey customers, Greene said he's excited to have the new crop a little early. "This is a really good crop this year," he said. "They are better than they have looked in a long time."
Tracy-Luckey operates in the state that is the nation's largest pecan producer. The United States Department of Agriculture expects Georgia to produce 45 million pounds of pecans this year, about a fourth of the total produced in the entire nation.
"Georgia should be called the Pecan State," Tracy said.
The largest pecan-producing area is between Interstate 75 west to the Alabama state line and north to Macon.
"That corner of the state is where 80 percent of the pecans are grown," she said.
Once they are bought from growers, pecans go through a long process of cleaning, cracking, sizing and boxing, and then are placed in cold storage before shipping, Tracy said. Some pecans are taken for further processing such as roasting or candy-coating.
Tracy-Luckey has done what many companies, especially those in small towns, have not been able to do: recover successfully from financial difficulties. In 2001, the company filed bankruptcy after the crops were larger than expected and shellers panicked, dumping pecans into the market at severe discounts.
"The industry went kablooey," Tracy said. "Everybody learned from it."
The company came out of bankruptcy in 2003 with all debts paid.
"We're doing great now," Tracy said.
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