Forty years ago Innot Hot Springs farmer Bill Godden planted one of the few pecan nut orchards in the Far North.
Each winter, the nuts are harvested and sold mostly through word-of-mouth and local markets, providing top-quality produce for those who are lucky enough to be in the know.
I visited Bill at his property recently and found not only a first-class product, but also a true character of the Australian bush.
To tell you the truth, up until about a week ago, I didn’t know much about pecan nuts. Sure, I had heard of them – even used them from time to time – but they were always just something I’d bought off the supermarket shelf, with no idea of where they came from.
I just assumed they were something I couldn’t source locally . . .
That changed when a friend gave me a bag of them the other day and said: “Look what I got for you – pecan nuts from Innot Hot Springs.”
Now, most of you will never have heard of Innot Hot Springs.
It’s a tiny town of only a couple hundred people on the edge of what us Australian’s refer to as the bush. From my home in Innisfail, it’s about an hour and a half’s drive away.
It’s an old tin mining town and is known locally for its thermal springs which draw visitors looking to soak in the warm, mineralised waters.
To get there you have to drive over the coastal plains of the Wet Tropics, stretching west from the ocean to the rainforest-clad mountains of the Great Dividing Range. Then as you climb up these ranges via the Palmerston Highway, you reach the plateau on top, known as the Atherton Tablelands.
It has a milder, almost sub-tropical climate due to the higher altitude and it’s prime farming land: fertile and rich. Then, as you continue west on the Kennedy Highway, you pass through the township of Ravenshoe and come to the edge of this land of green, rolling hills . . . then suddenly the landscape changes.
Gone are the lush pastures. They have been replaced with twisted eucalypts, dead grass, termite mounds and kangaroos. It’s dry and dusty, and the landscape is dotted with small towns battling to survive in this harsh, old land.
This is the Australian bush; and it stretches all the way to the Gulf Of Carpentaria – some six hundred kilometres away in the west. It’s tough out here but it’s also beautiful.
Innot Hot Springs sits at the start of this amazing, brown land.
Now, my friend grew up in this area and has known Bill, and his wife Marcie, for years and remembers eating their pecans as youngster.
She happened to run into them the other day while working in the area and it wasn’t long before she asked whether they still had pecans and if any were for sale.
As luck would have it, winter is harvest time for pecans so she bought a bag off them (and at five dollars a kilogram, it’s bloody good value) and also asked whether they would mind if I paid them a visit to do a story for my blog.
They generously agreed and so it was that I found myself at their farm last Sunday afternoon!
Bill is a lovely bloke and is 95-years-old. Originally from Canada, he settled in Australia after the Second World War in the ’50s, and began growing tobacco on the 40-acre block where he still lives to this day.
While most of the surrounding area is too dry to grow crops, Bill is right on the banks of the upper Herbert River and has a constant supply of water for irrigation, which was vital for tobacco production.
It was hard and dangerous work back in the day. Harsh chemicals were used on the crop without any protective equipment – no one knew any better – and eventually Bill became sick.
“At that time, we mixed arsenic with pollard and use to shake it all over the plants with something like a big salt shaker,” he’ll tell you.
“After that followed a whole string of others: DDT, eldrin, dielden, one after the other. Many of them were absorbed into the skin.”
Bill’s health was suffering and following tests doctors told him that poison in his body had built up to dangerous levels and he needed to avoid any further exposure.
He knew that meant he had to stop growing tobacco and find another way to make money off his block. Without income from tobacco to rely on, Bill got a job off-farm working at a seedling nursery at nearby Evelyn.
The company that employed him had come up with a grand plan to make money growing pecan nut trees all over the Tablelands. They had ear-marked around 2000 acres to be planted out once the seedlings were ready.
It wasn’t to be. They went broke before a tree was planted.
They owed Bill quite a bit in wages and when it eventually became clear the money wouldn’t be forthcoming, Bill took some seedlings as part payment.
That was in the early 1970’s and these days, the trees are well established and look elegant in their neat rows – although he has lost a few to cyclones over the years, leaving the odd gap. As you drive down the laneway to his property on a winter’s morning, you can see the trees standing tall and grey, without a leaf on them.
Being native to North America, pecan trees are deciduous, unlike most native trees in the Australian tropics, which are evergreen. You almost feel like you could be standing in rural California or Florida in late fall.
The Godden’s pecan orchard covers about 5 acres or so: obviously not enough to make a living off, but enough to provide a bit of income when frosts prevent the growing of cash crops like watermelons and mixed vegetables until the warmer months.
They sell their pecans at the local markets on the western tablelands and at the Octopi health store in Ravenshoe, as well as through the local grapevine . . . this is the bush after all!
Bill is no longer able to work his block like he did, but thankfully his daughter Andrea and son Joseph have moved back home to help their parents out. Forty acres in the 1950’s might have provided a good income, but in 2015, it’s not easy to make ends meet on what is a relatively small farm.
They may never be millionaires but they have friends and family and a gorgeous place to call home and that’s all that’s really important. My kids (who came with me for the outing) were in heaven there and it was so good to see them exploring the river behind the house, playing with puppies, photographing chickens and generally enjoying outdoor life on a small farm.
Sitting on Bill’s front patio, he tells me over a cup of tea about his pecans. Like the tobacco before, the secret to growing them is having enough water.
“During the winter when they are dormant they don’t need water,” he said.
“But once spring comes, they need to be irrigated right through to autumn. That’s the main growing time when they are covered in leaves and set the nuts for the next season. ”
He said pecans are grown commercially in Australia around Moree and prefer a sub-tropical climate. Innot Hot Springs, despite being in the tropics, provides this because of it’s reasonably high altitude allowing for cool winters.
In fact, the day we visited they had had a frost that morning. He said the nuts mature in the winter, and fall to the ground when ready for harvesting.
“On big farms down south, and in North America, they have machines to shake the trees and dislodge the nuts,” he said.
“But here we don’t worry about that and just let them fall when they are ready.”
Once they have fallen, a bit of Aussie bush ingenuity comes into play.
The nuts are mixed in with all the dead leaves on the ground, so Bill’s son Joseph, runs over the top of them with his ride-on mower with the blades as high as they will go.
This blows all the leaves aside, exposing the nuts. They then use a push-a-long contraption designed especially for picking up nuts in orchards (pictured above) to collect them.
I had a go at using it and made a short video. It’s not the best quality but you can check it out below.
Something else you’ll notice about Bill’s property, apart from the pecan trees, is his chooks. They are everywhere and according to Bill, play a vital role in pest control.
“In North America, they spray the trees every week to stop a whole variety of insects that attack the crop,” he said.
“But here on my farm, I don’t have any trouble at all. I think that’s partly because I’m isolated but also there is probably over one hundred chickens running around here eating insects and keeping numbers down.”
I just love the concept of using chickens for pest control instead of chemicals!
Given Bill’s previous trouble with pesticides, chicken’s are the perfect solution. They are multi-purpose too, also providing eggs and meat.
When I meet someone who grows something I always like to find out what their favourite way of cooking or preparing it is.
So I asked Bill what he likes to do with his pecans and his reply was to bake them in a pecan pie.
Pecan pie is a popular North American dessert, especially at Thanksgiving and is a delicious way make use of these nuts . When I asked for the recipe his wife went into their kitchen and came back with a ceramic pie dish they had bought in the past with the recipe written inside it.
As you can see, there have been a few pies baked in it over the years!
The maker’s name has faded away, so I can’t give them credit for the recipe. When I got home, I made my pie using a slightly different recipe, with double the amount of pecans.
It was popular amongst the whole family, so do yourself a favour and give it a go!
2 cups chopped pecan halves (leave 5 whole and arrange them in a pattern in the middle of your pie)
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup light corn syrup or glucose syrup (depending on which you can find)
2 teaspoons vanilla essence
1/3 cup of butter
3 large eggs lightly beaten
1 packet shortcrust pastry (you can make your own if you’re keen)
Preheat oven to 175 degrees C/350 degrees F
Take a sheet of pastry and press it into a 26cm round tart tin (I used one with a removable base). You may have to cut strips off a second sheet to fill any gaps around the edges. Prick the pastry on the bottom of the tin with a fork roughly every three centimetres.
In a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Add brown sugar, light corn syrup or glucose syrup, vanilla essence and salt.
Stir to combine over medium heat. Take off heat and set aside. Arrange pecans on top of pastry in tart tin. You can make a nice start pattern in the middle with the pecan halves you didn’t chop.
Now add eggs to sugar and butter mixture and combine with a whisk. Slowly pour into tart tin, making sure it surrounds pecans evenly.
Place in oven and bake for 40 minutes, or until firm.
Remove from oven and allow to cool before slicing and serving with freshly-whipped cream or vanilla ice-cream.