05 Nov 2023 Everybody loves a nut
By Dwain Hebda
The old saying “You don’t have to be nuts to work here, but it helps” might aptly be applied to Paw Paw’s Pecans, a lovely Conway County spread of 5,000 pecan trees of 12 different varieties producing about 120,000 pounds of nuts annually.
Billy Wilchman, a nurse practitioner by trade and farmer by avocation, began the operation as a hobby during the 30 years he and his wife ran a six-house chicken operation. Little did he know what gold there was in “them thar” shells.
“I didn’t realize how sought-after a commodity pecans actually were,” Wilchman said with a dry chuckle. “I mean, come October, November, I’m a pretty popular guy.”
The success of the farm has led to the development of other products and attractions, including developing a bed and breakfast, Charlotte Teresa Plantation in Atkins, with a gift shop that sells the farm’s pecans, pecan oil and other merchandise. They also branched into homemade fudge about three years ago, a product that wasn’t without its skeptics at first.
“A guy came from Calico Cottage in New York and spent the day with us teaching us how to make it,” Wilchman said. “The kettle that we use makes 33 pounds, and of course when you add all the nuts and everything, it ends up being about 60 pounds after you get through with it.
“He made a batch of white and a batch of chocolate and it ended up being over 150 pounds on the counter. I said, ‘I’ll never, ever sell that.’ A week and a half later, I was making it again. Now we make it at least once a week. During the holidays, we’ll make it at least three times a week.”
The couple has 300 different fudge recipes in their repertoire, from which they produce about 15 to 20 varieties at any given time. For those uninitiated in the confection or who only know the chocolate-based varieties, Wilchman said you don’t know what you’re missing.
“What we do in the springtime, everybody loves strawberries so we’ve got a strawberry pecan,” he said. “There’s a peach pecan that’s got little dried peach chunks in it and it tastes like a smoothie. One real popular one that we make is raspberry nut.”
Like any good craftsman, Wilchman knows his product and its raw materials inside and out. He can tell you the flavor nuances between the Pawnee and Caddo varieties of pecan and how one trades size for sweetness. He can also read his trees from one season to the next, gauging the effect of the elements on that year’s crop. For the record, 2023 is coming in a little light due to rough weather earlier this year, though the trees survived the February snowstorms largely unscathed.
“Fortunately, pecan trees are the last trees to bud out,” he said. “Every once in a while, there’s been a year or two where you get a late April freeze like at Easter and they’re already out. Fortunately, it usually just nips them a little bit. It’s rare to get a total crop loss.
“We had at least three good hailstorms with some wind damage. I’m going to say we’ll be 25,000 pounds off of where it should be. We produced the same amount as last year, but it should have grown by about 25,000 pounds.”
To the casual pecan consumer, none of this might seem like a big deal, but to Paw Paw’s devoted customers–whose fandom for the annual bounty borders on rabid–the availability of the prized homegrown nut is serious business. Wilchman and his wife, Charlotte, have developed their clientele in the same folksy, hands-on manner in which they tend their trees to help produce maximum results, and it shows.
“I didn’t have many pecans to start with, but when I first started selling them, anybody that would give me a check, I’d record their address and the next few years I collected lots of addresses,” Wilcher said. “I’d send them out a letter around the first of October reminding them that pecans were ready.
“We also developed a real nice little logo. Got a little squirrel on it and it says, ‘Nuttin’ better.’ My little squirrel’s name is Jimmy–Jimmy Da Nut Job. Everybody on my Facebook page comes looking for Jimmy to see what’s going on at the farm.”
The newest variety of fudge to be developed by Paw Paw’s Pecans is a custom number named 501 LIFE Pecan Caramel Apple Fudge, produced in honor of this longtime regional magazine.
“The 501 LIFE fudge came about because the editor called me and asked if there was something specific that we could make for them,” Wilchman said. “I had a recipe for apple fudge that I’d never made, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. The fudge uses Arkansas apples, plus the caramel and the pecans. It’s the bomb.”
“As many people know, the apple blossom is Arkansas’s state flower and pecans are the state nut,” said Stefanie Brazile, 501 LIFE editor and co-owner. “We thought the combination of those two items in a fudge named after us perfectly captured our Arkansas roots and everything we love about our home state. Besides that, we’ve had some advanced tastes of the candy, and the ingredients work together amazingly. We’re excited for people to try this truly unique treat. I’m afraid to be alone with it!”
501 LIFE Pecan Caramel Apple Fudge is on sale now through Christmas. Click the image above to contact Paw Paw’s Pecans on Facebook to order the fudge. The fudge is also on sale at many locations throughout Central Arkansas including:
Hillcrest Farmers Market – Little Rock
Me & McGee Market – North Little Rock
Midtown Farmers Market – Bryant
Reynolds Farm Stand – Conway
Bell Urban Farm – Conway
Pops Market – Guy
Copper Penny – Greenbrier
Paw Paw’s Pecans – Atkins
Farmers Co-op – Morrilton and Perryville
Wade Lucas Farms restaurant – Shirley
Rolling Meadows Nursery and Garden Center – Rose Bud