Each spring, Tommy Thompson dresses in a "space suit" and visits 6th- to 8th- grade classes in his hometown of College Station, Texas. Dr. Thompson does this because he's a mentor--a teacher who helps young people learn new and interesting things.
His hobby is beekeeping and he shares what he knows about bees with young people. The space suit he wears is actually a special suit to protect him from bee stings. His real work is breeding pecan trees in the only national pecan tree breeding program in the world, operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Pecans, produced by the trees, are a native North American crop. Early Native Americans, as well as European settlers, harvested pecans by throwing sticks into the trees, knocking the nuts to the ground. There, pecans were free for the gathering.
Today, pecans are a multimillion-dollar industry. Rural landowners in the Southwest and Southeast grow pecan trees in large groves or woodland pastures. In 1999, U.S. pecan production was about 342 million pounds and worth nearly $448 million. Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona are the top five pecan-producing states.
The pecan industry depends on new tree varieties being developed by plant breeders like Dr. Thompson, who works for the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS). These scientists make improvements in the trees to help them overcome diseases.
Scab is a fungal disease that attacks both nuts and leaves. Pecan trees grown east of central Texas are the most susceptible. To control this unsightly and damaging disease, growers spray fungicides as often as 10 times a year.
But Nacono has natural scab resistance so that growers won't have to spray chemicals as much. That, in turn, will help protect the environment. A Nacono pecan tree produces a large, high-quality nut. And it grows well in the eastern United States and in many other pecan-production areas of the world.
ARS doesn't give out trees, but does provide material called graftwood to nurseries. Nursery operators in turn produce budded trees for sale to homeowners and commercial growers. It usually takes 2 to 3 years after a new variety is released before nurseries are ready to sell trees to the public. USDA does include seedlings of new varieties in the ARS National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS). That's so these new varieties can be available for research purposes, including development of trees that your parents can buy from a nursery near your hometown.
Here are some interesting facts about pecans:
For a history of USDA's pecan breeding program, go to