Highway 39 is a two-lane road that takes you to Ridge Spring, the essence of rural, agricultural America.

Underneath a blue sky and wispy cirrus clouds, fields of cotton and hay proliferate. Farm animals graze in bucolic pastures – cows, goats, horses, mules and donkeys. Bright goldenrod and fuzzy, purplish wildflowers rise from the ditches on either side of the road.

Hometown folk call their community “the Ridge.”

Said one history, written by Converse Cone: “Prior to being settled by those who received land grants in the mid 1700s, The Ridge area was occupied by the Native Americans who maintained the pristine beauty of the area. Their presence here is evidenced by arrowheads and spearheads found in freshly plowed fields in the farmlands…The town was named Ridge Spring for the natural raised ridge of the land and for the spring of pure water which provided delicious drinking water.”

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Another delicious product of the Ridge? Pecans.

We’ve got an easy-to-follow recipe that’s sure to take your homemade cinnamon pecan butter to the next level. And trust us, once you’ve made it, you’ll never want to have it any other way.

Just outside town, a turn onto Pecan Grove Road takes you to a grand and peaceful pecan orchard. In every direction, the 40-year-old trees stretch row upon row. The atmosphere in the grove is nothing short of serene. The trees’ wide canopies offer shade on a particularly warm October afternoon. The limbs that grow from the trunks of these trees hold the prospect of the harvest soon to come.

Corbin Yon, whose responsibility is this orchard, rested a hand on the hood of his white Chevy truck. Mud covered the flaps of the vehicle – part of any job working the land and what it has to offer.

Corbin looked around the orchard. “Yeah,” the 28-year-old said, “it’s pretty nice in here.”

Yon, along with his parents, Kevin and Lydia, and his siblings, Sally and Drake, manage Yon Family Farms, located on the outskirts of Ridge Spring.

A large sign at the entry to the farm features the head of a black Angus cow. The sign speaks to Yon Family Farms main focus: raising some 1,400 black Angus bulls and cows for breeding purposes. The Yons also plant rowcrops – corn, wheat, grain sorghum and oats – and they grow hay.

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“My parents started Yon Family Farms when I was 2 years old,” Yon said. “I graduated from Clemson University in 2016 and I came back to work on the farm.”

The farm’s pecan business is a relatively new endeavor.

Yon explained that the family’s entry into the pecan business began in 2016 when his family bought the orchards from neighbor Joe Cal Watson who was retiring.

“It was a good opportunity. It was a good way for the farm to diversify. Mr. Joe Cal had been in the pecan business for a long, long time. He asked if we wanted to buy his orchards, so that was the beginning of Yon Family Orchards. We’re just continuing to harvest the orchards that Mr. Joe Cal established.”

Yon, a Clemson University graduate, a husband and a soon-to-be father, is largely in charge of 160 acres of pecan trees that grow in five separate orchards.

“We grow and care for the trees. We harvest the nuts, clean ’em, crack ’em, shell ’em, sort ’em and sell ’em.”

Yon explained that pecan trees “start putting on leaves” at the end of March and the beginning of April.

“They’ll pollinate a couple of weeks later.”

Different varieties of pecan trees must be planted next to one another for pollination to take place. The Yon orchards feature older varieties of pecan trees – Cape Fear, Stuarts, Gloria Grands, Desirables, Mayhem, Success and Shoshonies.

“In May,” Yon said, “they’ll start putting on a little nut and the pecans will grow until harvest time.”

The green, leathery husks of the nuts will turn brown and split into sections, naturally making the removal of the husks easier. A pecan eaten while the husk is still green and unripe will result in a gelatinous texture and bitter taste. Pecan trees will drop green pecans when they become overloaded with fruit and seek better balance.

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During the summer, Yon looks after the orchards. Most of the orchards are irrigated by way of underground tubing.

“We pump out of ponds on our farm. The trees take up all the water from underground, so unlike spraying them with water, there is very little waste.”

Fungicides are also sprayed on the trees to prevent pecan scab, which is the most economically significant disease of pecan trees in the southeastern United States.

Harvesting the nuts begins at the end of October and goes into November, sometimes even December.

“There’s a machine that clamps around the base of the tree and shakes it. We have what’s called a sweeper to sweep the nuts up into rows. Then we have a harvester that picks them up. It also gets dirt and debris out of the nuts.”

Not all the nuts are ready to fall from the tree during the first harvest, so a second harvest will usually occur three or four weeks later.

“If you plant a pecan tree, it will start harvesting nuts seven or eight years later. We have trees in our orchards that are over 90 years old and they are still producing.”

Ninety years old may seem young when you learn about the origin of pecans.

Pecans, which are the only major tree nut native to North America, can be traced back to the 16th century. The name “pecan” has its roots in Native American history. The Algonquin tribe used the word “pacane” to describe nuts needing a stone to crack.

Pecan harvests at Yon Family Farms change from year to year. “We get about a thousand pounds of pecans per acre,” Yon said, “but that varies from year to year. Pecan trees are considered ‘alternate bearing,’ which means you’ll get a heavier crop one year and a lighter crop the next year.”

While some Yon pecans are processed on the farm, others are processed in Georgia. And while some Yon pecans are sold wholesale, others stick to home and become part of candies and other treats that are sold at the Yons’ retail store in Ridge Spring, called The Nut House.

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“Our main market is Thanksgiving through Christmas,” Yon said.

You name it, The Nut House — which ships its products throughout the United States — features all sorts of pecan-inspired treats and candies: pecan pies, pecan brittle, pecan stuffed dates, roasted pecans, pecan pralines, white chocolate pecan clusters and spiced pecans. The Nut House also sells tins, large and small, which include a variety of store’s pecan products.

Yon finds the pecan business satisfying. “When you harvest a crop that you’ve been caring for all summer, well, I guess that’s the most satisfying part of the pecan business.”

And the peskiest part of the business? “Pecan trees are notorious for dropping limbs and they have to be picked up.”

As for the age-old pronunciation question – “PEA-can” or “puh-CON” – Yon has a way of suiting everybody.

“Normally, I’ll get the customer to say the word first and then I’ll say it however they say it. Personally, I say “PEA-can.”

Yon looks out over the pecan orchard one last time before getting back to the rest of the work he has to do on the farm.

“As a family, we’ve learned a lot about growing pecans, but there’s still a lot to learn.”

This article is republished from South Carolina Farmer, a magazine of the S.C. Farm Bureau Federation.

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