ALBANY — In the early 1900s a scheme was cooked up to entice residents of the northern states, commonly referred to at that time as Yankees, to invest in real estate outside Albany. The plan was to sell hundreds of 10-acre tracts of land planted with 100 pecan trees as mini-farms to serve as winter retreats and retirement destinations. Partly as a result of that scheme, today close to 500,000 pecan trees are scattered across Dougherty County.
Pecan City was founded in 1911 with a post office and railroad depot. Unfortunately, the “build it and they will come,” philosophy fell short in this instance. However, in 1928, the destiny of Pecan City would ultimately be ensured when Will Willson purchased 1,700 acres of these groves.
Sadly, he would not have the opportunity to fulfill his goal of farming the property as he died shortly after the purchase. However, his wife, Suzanne, moved from Atlanta to Albany with their three young children, including 6-year-old Harry, to manage the newly purchased farm. Almost a century later, the land is still being farmed by the Willson family, with each generation striving to take the family farming operations to the next level.
In 1948, Harry and Jane Willson were living in Atlanta. Harry was working with a business consulting firm when Jane, a recent graduate of Wellesley College, was asked by the Atlanta Wellesley Club if the Willsons could provide pecans from their farm for sales to benefit a scholarship fund. The sale was a success and resulted in the Willsons receiving a number of letters from people around the country who wanted to continue purchasing their pecans. These were the first of what would become known as “Love Letters” from the Willsons’ satisfied customers.
In 1951, the second generation of Willsons moved from Atlanta to Albany to manage the farm and grow a budding mail-order business. Even at this early juncture, they resolved to sell only the highest quality nuts to their mail-order customers. The remaining 75% of their crop was sold wholesale for commercial use — a practice that continues to this day.
During the early years, Harry Willson spent the majority of his time running the farming operations while Jane ran the mail-order business. In the era of Amazon, mail-order business is almost old school. However, when the Willsons started the Sunnyland farms brand, offering food products through the mail was almost unheard of.
From the start, they made a concerted effort to develop a friendly rapport with each new customer. This went even farther when Harry wrote a brief note related to the birth of their daughter in 1959 and included it in the 1960 catalog. Thus, the tradition of “The Willson Family Update” began. A tradition that continues today, even though marketing consultants continually question the wisdom of devoting such a high percentage of space in the catalog to the endeavor. From the customer response, the use of this space has proven to be a success in forging a friendship between Sunnyland and its customer base.
This tradition is not lost on Teresa Barbre, the CMO at Sunnyland who recounts how Jane Willson used to say, “Our customers are not just customers. They are friends that we have yet to meet in person.”
In 1968, the Willsons decided to gamble on an all-out effort to expand and pursue the mail-order business. Needless to say, their efforts were a success and Sunnyland farms has continued to expand. Originally, the toasted pecan halves and candied nuts were prepared by Jane in the Willsons’ home kitchen. Today a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen at Sunnyland continues this tradition, using many of Jane Willson’s original recipes.
When Pecan City was being pitched to potential buyers, part of the sales patter was that all you had to do was wait for the annual crop to drop. In reality, nothing could have been farther from the truth. Today’s groves are the focus of year-round activities aimed at maximizing nut production and quality. Groves must be routinely fertilized. Dead limbs and branches are trimmed. The grass in the groves is continually mowed to allow the maximum benefit of rainfall and allow harvesting equipment to operate efficiently. During the growing season, the trees are inspected for insect and fungus and treated accordingly.
Today’s groves are irrigated, and once again Willson Farming Co. was ahead of the curve. In 1978, Larry and Beverly Wilson came back to Albany, the third generation to answer the call of the groves. One of Larry’s initial contributions was to irrigate the Willson groves, a practice that is now common but was not when Larry undertook the effort.
Up until the 1970s, the harvesting of pecans was a seasonal and labor-intensive operation. Interestingly, the labor force was a family endeavor. As a young boy hunting around the Willson farm groves, I recall entire families knocking pecans from trees with bamboo poles and young children climbing the trees to shake the larger limbs. The nuts were picked off the ground by hand as croaker sacks were filled to the bursting point.
Today mechanization has taken the place of bamboo poles and croaker sacks. Large mechanized shakers cause the nuts to fall from the trees. Sweepers fill massive hoppers with the nuts they glean from the ground. Each wheel of these mechanized marvels has sweepers that keep them from crushing the valuable nuts as they cruise the orchards.
Once harvested, the nuts are transported to the cleaning sheds, where they are sorted by size and debris is removed. The nuts are then placed in large wooden bins, separated by variety and size. The nuts are then washed in a hot water bath to further clean them and soften the shell prior to cracking.
Once the pecans are cracked, the hulls are separated from the meat. The meat is then sorted by a variety of sizes, ranging from fine meal to halves. The halves are graded by quality. Although the process is mechanized, at Sunnyland the final grading is done with the human eye. This is probably the most demanding job at the plant.
“This process could be automated, but we are proud that it is still done by hand, that personal touch makes a difference,” Staci Willson said.
Alex and Staci are the fourth generation to answer the call of the groves. They met in Nashville and were living in Atlanta in 2015, when they came to Albany to join the family business. Staci recounts that before they got married, she asked Alex, “Would you ever go back and join your grandparents in their business?” He responded, “I can’t say never. I can’t say I wouldn’t never do that. So, I knew we would one day most likely be coming to Albany.”
One of the first things Alex did was to solve the problem of what to do with the shells. The solution: They now pulverize and burn them to run a boiler that generates power for the shelling plant.
Staci Willson came to Sunnyland with a background in the food industry, so that was a good fit. Alex is working to take Sunnyland into the digital age, modernizing and energizing the online marketing reach of the business.
“Staci handles the social media,” Barbre explains. “The arrival of the internet gave us a much broader reach than what we had landing in their mailbox. Now we land in their mailbox, their inbox, we land on their Google feed. That has really been a big coup for us. When we first started, we were one of only a few that sold food products by mail. Now there is so much competition, we have to reach a much broader audience.”
Staci Willson said she and Alex came to Albany to be part of a family legacy.
“When we decided to move back, Alex felt he really could make a difference here” she said. “We can make a difference growing a business that will employee more people with multiple generations of employees. We really are a family. That’s what brought us here. The opportunity to give back and be part of that family legacy.”
The Willsons aren’t the only family involved. A quick glance at any of the catalogs over the past decades shows not only an unusually high level of employee retention, but many generations of several families working there as well.
Barbre said she feels that the longevity of the company is directly tied to the relationship not only with customers but employees as well.
“We primarily have a female work force,” she said. “We have a lot of moms, a lot of single moms. They have been given an opportunity that they might not otherwise have received. I use myself as an example. When I came here in 1978, I didn’t know I had a marketable skill.
“We have about 50 full-time employees. We have others who are seasonal; some have come back every season for over 35 years. We are all about promoting from within. Almost every permanent employee here started as a temporary. That’s how I started. I just kept coming in. I didn’t realize I was a full-time employee until I had to fill out insurance information. We keep our eyes open and reward those that do a good job. If we have an opening, we don’t post it, we look to see who is with us that could do that job. Even if they are currently in another department.
“I’ve always said people come here and work hard,” Barbre added. “They do work hard; that fourth quarter is hard. People are willing to do it because back in the day they saw Jane and Harry working right alongside them. That has not changed generationally. They put in the hard hours; they show up on the hard days. It is very much a family environment. We’re all in this together. It’s not always easy, but we get to the end and we look back and we’re proud of what we accomplished. I would say Alex and Staci coming in, that was like a blood transfusion we really needed. Their perspective wasn’t jaded by doing something for the past 35 years a certain way. I have no doubt that Sunnyland will celebrate a hundredth anniversary as a family-owned and -operated business.”
And, most likely, sometime down the road another generation of Willsons will hear the call of the groves and answer accordingly.