Orchards to oils

Posted on 11 May 2016

by Powell Cobb

photographs by Jessica Cannon

1The genesis of an idea can often be traced back to one’s childhood, in one form or another.

Pecans have always been one of the consistent elements in Rob and Eric Cohen’s life.

The brothers grew up in Brinson on a 100-acre orchard bought by their father. Rob was 10, and Eric was 8. Those rows upon rows of trees must have left a strong impression.

Years later, after the two had graduated from the University of Georgia with agriculture degrees, they returned to Decatur County and began exploring the pecan business, just like their dad had.

They found an orchard in South Seminole County in 2002. After trying and failing to work a deal to harvest it with the owner, Rob and Eric caved and bought the tract outright. It was 40 acres.

“That 40 acres led to renting this 100 acres and that led to this 30 acres and that led to buying another tract,” Rob said. “It took off for us. In about five years we were working about 700 to 800 acres. Now we are up to 1,000 acres.”

They named their orchards Pecan Ridge Plantation. Farms span from Eldorendo, Whigham, Donasonville and beyond. The Cohen brothers have four full-time employees to help manage the workload, and plenty of seasonal help, including some local high school students hired for summer work.

The pecans are grown all year, throughout the colder winter months and into spring and summer when the green on the pecan trees really begins to blossom. Anywhere from late September to early October is harvesting time. Exactly when depends on the market in China.

Six years ago, the Chinese discovered the wonder of the pecan, and began incorporating it in their dishes. It’s the biggest market in the world for the nut, and American growers are making good money off of shipping them overseas. Pecan Ridge Plantation will ship anywhere between 400,000 to 600,000 pounds of pecans to China this year, about 60 percent of its production.

“They are extremely popular, and they believe they bring good luck,” Rob said. “So the big push for us is to grow them and get them shipped within six weeks of their new year. If the new year falls late, like it did this past year, you are harvesting pecans up into December. If it falls early, you might get the harvest until mid-November. Once that deadline hits, you’ll see the price stabilize.”

Three years ago, the domestic production was incredibly cheap to what it had been in the past. The Cohen brothers struggled to come up with what to do with all of the pecans they had.

Should they get into the custom shelling business?

Should they be making candy?

That’s when Rob noticed it. A company in Louisiana was producing pecan oil, and he thought that was interesting. The gears began to turn inside his head on how Pecan Ridge Plantation would be able to produce a similar product. But he filed the idea away for later. That next year, the pecan prize went back up again, and business was back to normal.

Two years later, Rob’s daughter came to him asking for Pecans to sell at the Bainbridge Farmers’ Market. She was trying to raise money for a missionary project with Fellowship Baptist Church, which was working to raise $10,000 to help fund building a well in Uganda.

“I told her I would give her the pecans,” Rob said. “You can have 100 percent of the profit and you make the decision to donate what to the well in Africa.”

Meanwhile, the Cohen’s curiosity in pecan oil began to return. He bought some, bottled it up, and sent it with his daughter to the farmers’ market, just to see what kind of interest folks might have in the product.

She sold all the pecans and all the oil. Rob sent a batch of pecans to a presser in Washington, and he was sent back a five-gallon bucket. It was bottled, put up at the farmers’ market, and sold, week after week. Stores in the area began calling Pecan Ridge Plantation, wanting to get their product on the shelves. By January 2015, Pecan Ridge Plantation’s oil was state certified.

It wasn’t long before Rob and Eric put a building next to their factory in Brinson, bought the pressing equipment and were handling their own production of the oil.

What came after that, the credit goes to Tate.

3Tate is Eric’s black lab that would dig up pecan truffles, a mushroom that grows about an inch under the dirt around pecan trees. Not to be mistaken for its more expensive and highly-sought after cousin, the black truffle, these white truffles still sell for a whopping $300 per pound.

It was a crazy idea, but what if they put the pecan oils and the truffles together?

The Cohens shipped some of their pecan oil to Montana, and were sent back a concoction that infused the taste and the scent of truffles into the liquid.

The extract is 0.03 percent of a truffle, but a little bit goes a long way.

“I personally don’t like the smell of it,” Rob said, laughing. “I like it more and more because people are ordering it and it smells like money. When we first mixed it, I almost couldn’t stand to be out there while we were bottling it. I said there is no way in God’s green earth someone is going to pay us for this. Little did I know.”

Pecan Ridge Plantation’s truffle oil sits on the shelves of 75 stores across 14 states. It’s the very first of its kind on the market, which has peaked the interest of boutique shops and gourmet chefs across the country.

Whole Foods, a South California-based company, is interested in getting their product to customers on the west coast.

“It has been basically a year since we put it all together,” Rob said. “Can we supply the people out there (in California)? Who knows! I think we will see a lot of growth in the next couple years. Maybe more than we can handle.”

As unlikely as it is Pecan Ridge Plantation can’t handle the growth of their incredibly popular item, it’s still hard to deny the quick turnaround the Cohen brothers have seen on their product.

It has only been a few decades since Rob and Eric walked through that first pecan orchard as kids.

One could say that’s where it all started.

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