Area resident overcomes challenges to grow pecans

BY CECELIA ELLIS
For The Republic

The 125 pecan trees planted on Bill Johnson’s property in Jennings County represent a multitude of lessons he’s learned over the years.

One is that success can be achieved, but it takes hard work. Johnson offered another:

“You should learn about what you want to do before you try to do it,” he said.

His quest to grow pecan trees began more than 33 years ago, but it took 20 years of determined effort before he harvested his first crop of pecans. Today, Johnson harvests about 100 pounds of pecans per year, he said.

It was during a family vacation in Georgia, where pecan trees grow in abundance, that Johnson first had the idea to start a new hobby.

“You’ll laugh, but when I saw all those rows of beautiful Georgian pecan trees, I decided I would start growing pecan trees as soon as I returned to Indiana. How hard could it be?” a smiling Johnson said, as he rolled his eyes.

The concept of hard work to grow any crop was not new to Johnson, who grew up on a farm north of Muncie in Delaware County.

Pecans grow best in a mild climate with plenty of moisture. The vast majority of pecans are grown in southern states, such as Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.

“I knew the Indiana winter climate would be difficult, but I really wasn’t aware of the many other challenges,” the 68-year-old Johnson said, as he walked among the rows of pecan trees growing in the meadow in the valley below his home.

The first tree he planted is a domestic pecan tree that is a species native to Indiana. The trees he planted in quick succession were products of grafts of the first tree and a variety of other types of pecan trees that can survive in a cold climate.

Many of his pecan trees now stand as tall as 70 feet, but the first tree still stands only about 25 feet tall.

“This tree produces pecans that are a little smaller than the pecans from the other trees, but they have a very rich taste,” Johnson said, as he patted the trunk of the first tree in his orchard.

“Now, most of my trees stand much taller than the average pecan tree in Georgia, but my trees do not produce as many pecans as the trees in Georgia. I am not sure why these trees are taller, but they are,” Johnson added.

He is sure, however, of the many other lessons he has learned along the way.

“I think the biggest lesson I learned was to discover just how destructive deer can be to trees. Just one deer can easily destroy all the foliage of one tree,” Johnson said.

In the early days, deer nearly destroyed Johnson’s entire crop of pecan trees, he said, shaking his head.

“I think I took up hunting just out of revenge for all the damage the deer did to my pecan trees,” Johnson said.

Other lessons he learned included controlling tree disease, pest control, irrigation, soil grooming, landscaping and other intricacies of growing nut trees that would prefer a warmer climate.

Other careers

Although Johnson grew up on a farm, that background didn’t translate into a career in farming.

After graduating from high school, he attended Ball State University. He graduated with a degree in education, but was called to serve in the U.S. Army.

“I served in the Vietnam era but I did not serve in Vietnam. I do value the time I spent in the military. I learned many things there,” Johnson said, remembering the time he spent in South Korea in the early 1970s.

After the military, Johnson and his wife Jane seized the opportunity to teach in the American School in Iran.

“That was an amazing experience. We left there just before the revolution. I was glad to get back to Indiana. I think I appreciated everything in Indiana more after that, including the trees,” said Johnson

Soon after returning to Indiana, Johnson landed a job teaching German and English at Jennings County High School. While teaching, he also pursued a master’s degree in business at Indiana University. He eventually left teaching for a career at Cummins Inc. in Columbus.

Now retired, Johnson spends his time groom his pecan trees, but pursuing other passions, too. A lifelong musician, he is learning to play the fiddle for the first time.

He also writes fictional books, which he sells along with his packaged pecans at the Columbus City Winter Farmers Market.

Enjoying rewards

A bout with arthritis ended Johnson’s hunting exploits. Now, he is content to just watch the deer as they stroll across his 40 acres of land where he’s invested many hours.

“Growing the pecans was an incredible amount of work. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble and work if I had just done more study on how to go about things before I started,” Johnson said.

“But the best part of it all is when Jane and I sit down together and enjoy cracking and eating the pecans,” he added, smiling.

The Johnson file

Who: Bill Johnson

What: Jennings County resident and pecan farmer

Background: Former German and English teacher at Jennings County High School; retired from Cummins Inc. in Columbus.

Wife: Jane