Miller Pecan Farms: Connecting with Customers Through Tradition

By 0 Comment

The Miller Family went nuts back in 1972 – nuts about pecans. “I enjoy keeping my grandparents’ legacy going,” said Cheyenne Deitch, manager of Miller Pecan Farms, Inc., and the third generation of her family to harvest pecans near DeWitt in Agri-Ready Designated Chariton County. Her grandparents, Dean and Ruth Miller, began the venture so their small children could learn the value and skills of entrepreneurship. What began as a family project cracking pecans has grown into a full-time harvesting, processing, value-added wholesale, and retail endeavor. Miller Pecan Farms is connecting their customers to the distinctive flavor of native-grown, locally sourced pecans.

The first pecans that Dean and Ruth brought home fell from twenty pecan trees growing on their farmland. Many families in the area had pecan trees and began bringing their nuts to the Miller family to crack with their specialized cracking tool for five cents per pound. ‘Pecan’ originated from the Algonquin Indian tribe’s word “pacane” which meant ‘a nut too hard to crack by hand.’ The Miller kids were successful and Dean’s search for more pecan crackers led to purchasing nine pecan crackers and a grove of 1,500 pecan trees five miles away near Brunswick, the Pecan Capital of Missouri (a designation coincidentally bestowed on the town in 1972). Expertise in pecan farming is a part of the agricultural heritage of the area, contributing to the $93.3 million of agriculture, food, forestry and related industry products produced annually in Agri-Ready Designated Chariton County (according to the 2021 Missouri Economic Contribution of Agriculture and Forestry study).

Five years into cracking pecans, Ruth Miller decided to expand. “As if Grandma didn’t have enough to do with three small children, hundreds of hogs to feed, and being a row-crop farmer’s wife, she decided to make candies,” Cheyenne shared. “The start of the business was in a small room in Grandpa’s machine shed. Grandma kept adding rooms and taking over Grandpa’s machine shed. The business we have today takes up about 75% of the original shed including spaces for cracking, shelling, packaging, an FDA inspected candy kitchen, storage, and retail space.” Ruth’s first candy was Praline Pecans, which is still a top seller for the family business today.

Cheyenne began helping her grandparents and her mother when she was old enough to walk. She was able to return to the farm full-time in 2016 to lead management of the grove and the farm’s established wholesale and retail sales. She designed the farm’s transition from her grandmother’s masterful ‘pencil and paper’ bookkeeping system to the website Cheyenne built as well as electronic data and records. Today, Miller Pecan Farms can accept credit card payments for retail purchases at the farm store and online year-round for their locally grown, cracked, shelled, and pieced pecans, pecan syrup, over 85 different candies, nuts, mixes, and more. 

Cheyenne is excited that investments and new technologies have made “pecan season” longer and sales possible year-round. The high oil content of pecans causes them to go rancid, so any pecans that aren’t sold soon after harvest are kept fresh in freezers at zero degrees Fahrenheit for use and sale throughout the year. Orders placed in the off-season are filled with stored nuts that the family freshly processes right before shipping. Annual pecan harvest begins each October, while peak pecan sales begin in September and continue through the holidays.

Instead of shaking their trees, Miller Pecan Farms prefers to let their pecans fall naturally. Pecans are picked up using an implement that pulls behind a tractor. It operates like a vacuum, sucking up twigs, leaves, rocks, and nuts, and separates them much like a combine, holding the nuts in a hopper while the other materials exit the back of the machine. The machine isn’t perfect; some hand sorting happens back at the ‘nut house’ (Grandpa’s shed). In addition to the production from their groves, the farm purchases pecans from local growers and neighbors across Chariton and Agri-Ready Designated Carroll counties who gather the nuts in bags or buckets. They still offer custom cracking for customers who want to keep their own pecans.

Many pecan trees dot the landscape in yards and fencerows, in native and cultivated groves, and some in the middle of farm fields in the region near Brunswick. “We have some trees that our family plants row crops around,” Cheyenne said. “The nuts are that valuable. Our tractors and row crops make way for the pecan trees.” Why are these valuable trees so prevalent in this area? “Nobody really knows,” Cheyenne shared. “My mom has researched it. The local folklore suggests that Indians brought them and planted them. Grandma always said that we weren’t sure why the pecans are here, but we thank God that they are.” Native pecans grow in deep alluvial soils found along major rivers and thrive in deep upland soils (such as Missouri’s loess river hills) where there is adequate water and little clay.

While there are more than 500 varieties of pecans, each with varying flavor, texture, size, color, and shape, the pecan trees in the Miller family grove are Carya illinoinensis, the prevalent, hardy, Missouri-native variety of pecan. Missouri native pecans are smaller than popular varieties of large southern pecans. “Our pecans are twice as sweet as larger, cultivated varieties because of their high oil content. They are distinctively different than pecan groves that are well known in Vernon and Bates counties,” Cheyenne said. “What’s cool about native pecans is we don’t do much to support their longevity. We don’t have to fertilize or spray. Our native variety is naturally pest resistant. We prune them occasionally when the branch canopies grow together and touch. We mow the grass in the grove a couple of times a year.”

Cheyenne is proud to be a part of her family’s generational success. Cheyenne’s husband, Jason, maintains the farm’s equipment. Grandpa Dean passed away in 2020, but Cheyenne is grateful to rely on Grandma Ruth’s wisdom daily. A love of family and pecans keeps Ruth and Cheyenne’s mother, Debi, packing online orders and making batches of candy on many evenings and hosting the retail store on weekends. Cheyenne’s daughters Ella (7) and Libby (5) are learning to help as well, usually by rearranging the candy displays.

“I love being surrounded by family while I work. I have been able to bring my kids to work with me so they can learn,” Cheyenne said. “Theres something special about taking what you grow, turning it into a product and watching others enjoy it that really makes me happy. I really do love it.” Miller Pecan Farms is a member of Missouri Grown, a program of the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Members of the Miller Family are continuing Dean’s legacy of row-crop farming in Chariton County. They are members of the Missouri Corn Growers Association and Missouri Soybean Association, partners of Missouri Farmers Care.

The pecan is the only major tree nut that grows naturally in North America. The U.S. produces 80% of the world’s pecans. April is National Pecan Month. Shelled pecans are high in healthy fats, fiber, and protein. They have been shown to help lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. To learn more about Miller Pecan Farms, Inc. and their available pecan products, visit their website.