The first cellphone call Troy Swift ever made was to buy pecan trees.


It was 2000, and after he’d just taken Texas Agrilife Extension’s pecan short course, a class that teaches the basics about growing pecan trees to people like Swift, who had just bought some land that had an old pecan orchard on it.


Swift, a former canoeing instructor at Texas State University who had a full-time job in the composite jet engine fan blade industry in San Marcos, wanted to plant additional pecan trees on the property along the San Marcos River near Staples.


He bought 125 on the phone that day, a mix of Pawnee, Sioux, Waco, Hopi and Cheyenne pecans.


For the next 15 years, he continued to work a full-time job and expand his pecan business, adding another orchard along the San Marcos River near Fentress. Only in 2016 did he retire to become a full-time pecan farmer, and he can still remember the excitement of that first phone call.


"It totally opened my eyes to what a pecan really is," he says.


All along Texas rivers, you’ll find giant native trees, some that predate the Alamo. Swift says that some of them might have been planted by Apache and Comanches, who moved frequently and likely dropped or planted the pecans as they traveled.


Since 1955, the federal government has required that all new pecan varieties be named after indigenous tribes. Choctaw and Pawnee were among the first, but now there are Comanche, Lakota, Caddo and Shawnee pecans, all of which thrive in slightly different conditions or produce a different size or quality of nut.


"You gotta get water to the roots, but they love the sun," Swift says, which is why so many pecan farms thrive in West Texas and the Panhandle.


In 1919, state legislators decided that the pecan tree would be the state tree, and in 2013, pecan pie became the official Texas state pie.


RELATED: Texas pecans in crosshairs of trade war as harvest gets underway


Today, Swift’s orchards produce 250,000 pounds of pecans in a good year; 2011 was not one of those good years. The drought hit every agricultural industry hard. In order to prevent layoffs, Swift added a sawmill to turn fallen pecan trees into raw material now coveted by interior designers and furniture makers who make bar tops and tables with the hardwood that is comparable to mahogany or hickory.


"There’s a lot of history in these trees," Swift says. When they are breaking down the trunks into slabs that have to go through a multi-week curing process, they find bullets, concrete and chains. "We’ll find an arrowhead one day," he says.


Salvaging trees salvaged his business, and now both sides of the company are booming.


Right next to the 5-foot saws that can cut flat, even sheets of wood out of a 250-year-old pecan tree are some of the machines that shake, sweep, sort and clean hundreds of pounds of pecans at a time.


"Each machine specializes in taking things out that are too big, too small, too light, too heavy or not the right color, and then people pick out what the machine couldn’t figure out," Swift says.


They harvest pecans from October to January, but Swift says they usually try to finish up by Christmas.


In order to harvest the pecans that are ready to fall off but haven’t already, they use a tractor with a heavy claw that grabs the trunk of the tree to shake it for about 15 seconds, which encourages the pecans that are ready to fall to the ground. If they wait for them to fall naturally, feral hogs will get them first. "Everything eats pecans," Swift says. "Everything."


Each tree gets shaken once a year. "We can’t wait too late, and we can’t go too early," he says.


As in the craft beer or liquor industry, Swift is trying to attract a pecan-loving consumer who’s willing to pay the highest price for specialized pecans that they can choose by variety.


"People will ask me, ‘What’s your favorite pecan?’ and I say, ‘That’s not for me to answer,’" he says.


Pecans are sometimes credited as originating in Illinois because of their Latin name, Carya illinoinensis, but that’s only where white settlers first encountered them and picked up the Algonquin word, meaning "a nut that must be cracked."


The pecan belt, however, starts in Mexico and extends all the way to Illinois, and reaches from the Carolinas to California. Georgia and Texas were always the top-producing states, but New Mexico took the top spot last year.


"Pecans are an every-other-year nut," Swift says. Each tree produces both male and female flowers, which means all the trees in an orchard don’t produce nuts in the same year.


Last year, the U.S. exported 47 million pounds of American pecans to Asia, mostly China and Vietnam, but the recent trade war with China has hit U.S. pecan farmers hard. In response, regional pecan industries are now collaborating on a federal marketing program that has increased domestic demand to help compensate for that shift in exports.


RELATED: Pecans filling your yard? Lamar Senior Activity Center offers pecan cracking


The real winner in this tariff fight is Mexico, whose overall pecan production outpaced the U.S. for the first time last year.


"Mexico’s crop (last year) was abundant and high-quality, which surprised everybody," says Bob Whitney, executive director of the Texas Pecan Board. Pecan growers in the U.S. tried to hold firm on their prices, which allowed the Mexican growers to sell more easily in the Asian markets.


Germany is the largest European buyer of American pecans, importing more than 9 million pounds, but now the U.S. is importing more pecans than ever from Mexico.


Growers are now looking into new geographic markets, such as India, which is reducing its tariffs on pecans, but also new markets within the U.S., such as chefs, who want the high-end pecans, and pecan food companies, which can transform the lower quality nuts into value-added products.


With a large, diversified grower network that includes backyard pecan farmers and midsize, multigenerational orchards, the pecan industry is in some ways catching up to the almond and walnut industries, which are dominated by only a few companies in a smaller geographic region.


"We have to differentiate ourselves and get better at what we do," Whitney says. Part of that includes learning how to market the different qualities of nuts and find new ways of using them.


The pecan is America’s only native tree nut, and many people still think of the nut only as the main ingredient in pecan pie. Swift and other pecan growers say that’s in part because of how we sell and store pecans.


"Every pecan farmer will tell you to freeze any nut to maintain its quality," he says. "When pecans turn the color of root beer on the outside and gray on the inside, they’ve turned."


Pecans aren’t sold in the frozen or refrigerated sections of grocery stores, so if they’ve been sitting on a shelf for more than a month, they won’t taste very good.


"If you eat that pecan, you think that’s what pecans taste like," he says. Pecan quality goes downhill even faster when the nuts are still in shells.


PHOTOS: What goes into growing, harvesting pecans?


The best pecans in a grocery store are sold with the dried fruit in the produce section, not the baking aisle, and many orchards, like Swift’s, have small retail stores where you can buy fresh pecans that have been shelled and packaged this season.


The pecan celebration happens year-round at Berdoll Pecan Candy & Gift Co. in Cedar Creek, whose giant squirrel, Pearl, has been greeting customers since 2011. The store, which started in 1986 next to the Berdoll family pecan orchard, now has an on-site production facility that makes pecan candies, confections and pies for customers year-round. (If you want to add a pecan tree to your yard, they also sell a number of varieties of ready-to-plant pecan trees.)


Austinuts, which has a retail store at 2900 W. Anderson Lane, has been selling dry-roasted pecans since 1993, and another local pecan company, 38 Pecans, has a seasonal retail store that just opened for the season at 12034 Research Blvd., where they sell all kinds of pecans, pecan pieces and seasoned pecan meal that you can use instead of breadcrumbs in cooking.


As specialty diets have increased in popularity, so has the availability of pecan milk, pecan flour, pecan butter and pecan oil, which are all touted as having many of the same heart-healthy antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties as whole pecans.


RELATED: Get ready for Thanksgiving with pecan pie-inspired nut bars


Houston-based company Malk sells pecan milk in stores nationwide, and the Dripping Springs-based Art of Pecan recently added an additional mill to make its pecan oil.


Swift has a dog in the fight, but he says pecans go good with just about any food, sweet or savory. "And in my opinion, it’s impossible to put too many pecans on a bowl of ice cream."


Sticky Bun Popcorn


About six years after our restaurant, Flour, opened, we were featured on a popular Food Network show called "Throwdown! With Bobby Flay" in which Chef Bobby challenged me and Flour in a competition to see who could make the better sticky buns. (I’m proud to say we won!) Our sticky buns are made with buttery, soft brioche dough and baked in a buttercream-brown sugar-honey concoction that we call goo. I’m convinced you could pour this goo on pretty much anything and it would make it shine. This recipe tests my theory: We mix popcorn with toasted pecans and a light goo coating, then bake it all together to make it extra crispy and caramelized. Sharing a big bowl of this with Christopher while watching TV, lying on the couch, is the best way I know to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.


— Joanne Chang


3 tablespoons vegetable oil (such as canola)


3/4 cup unpopped popcorn kernels


2 cups pecan halves, toasted


3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar


3/4 cup unsalted butter


3/4 cup honey


1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract


1/2 teaspoon kosher salt


1/4 teaspoon baking soda


1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon


Heat the oven to 350 degrees and place racks in the center and bottom third of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set them aside.


In a very large pot with a lid, heat the oil over high heat until hot. Add the popcorn kernels, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to medium-high. Shake the pot every few seconds until you start to hear the popping. As soon as you can hear it popping, shake the pot constantly. When the popping slows down to 1 pop every few seconds, turn off the heat but keep shaking. When you hear 1 pop every 5 or 6 seconds, remove the pot from the stove and dump the popcorn into a large bowl. Remove and discard any unpopped kernels. Add the pecan halves to the popcorn.


These next few steps go quickly, so be sure to have all the ingredients and equipment at hand. Return the pot to the stove and add the brown sugar and butter. Heat over high heat until the butter melts. The mixture will get foamy and start to color bit by bit. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula, for 3 minutes — the color will deepen a shade and it will smell rich and delicious. Add the honey and bring back to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla, salt, baking soda and cinnamon. (The caramel goo will bubble up and foam a bit from the reaction of the baking soda with the sugar.)


Drizzle the caramel goo over the popcorn-pecan mixture and toss to distribute well, until the popcorn is evenly colored. Spread on the prepared baking sheets. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheets and switching their positions midway through the baking time, until the nuts are deeply toasted and the popcorn smells fragrant.


Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheets on a wire rack. When the popcorn cools, it will be crunchy and crispy. Break up the popcorn into bite-size clusters after it cools.


Sticky bun popcorn can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week. Makes 16 to 18 cups.


— From "Pastry Love: A Baker's Journal of Favorite Recipes" by Joanne Chang (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40)


Maple Pecan-Crusted Salmon


Salmon contains plenty of healthy omega-3 fats, making it an excellent protein choice for the keto lifestyle. It’s a flavorful fish on its own but pairs particularly well with sweet flavors, like maple or honey. Keto guidelines don’t permit these sugary sweeteners, but we can create our own keto-friendly marinade glaze with maple extract, butter and a natural sugar-free sweetener. The pecan crust on this fish is sweet, smoky, and rich, all at the same time. If you don’t have pecans, other types of nuts, such as walnuts or almonds, will also work. This recipe makes a lightly sweet topping. If you like it very sweet, you can double the sweetener. Conversely, if you prefer not to use a sweetener, you can omit it.


— Maya Krampf


4 salmon fillets


4 tablespoons butter, melted


1 tablespoon powdered sugar (or erythritol, for a keto option)


1/2 teaspoon real maple extract


1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika


1/2 teaspoon sea salt


1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or less if you prefer a milder marinade


3/4 cup pecans


Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with foil. Arrange the salmon fillets on the lined baking sheet.


In a medium bowl, make the maple glaze. Whisk together the melted butter, powdered sugar (or sugar substitute, optional), maple extract, smoked paprika, sea salt and cayenne pepper.


Brush both sides of the salmon with the maple glaze, using about half of it. Set the remaining glaze aside.


Pulse the pecans in a food processor until finely chopped. Don’t overmix or it will turn into pecan flour. (Alternatively, chop with a knife.) Add the chopped pecans to the remaining glaze and stir together to coat.


Spoon the pecan mixture evenly over the salmon fillets, pressing on the top with your hands.


Bake for 9 to 12 minutes, until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Serves 4.


— From "The Wholesome Yum Easy Keto Cookbook: 100 Simple Low Carb Recipes. 10 Ingredients or Less" by Maya Krampf (Harmony, $26.99)


Rich Pecan Milk


Pecan milk, unlike almond milk, doesn’t require straining after you’ve blended the soaked nuts and water. The longer the nuts soak in water, the richer the milk will taste, so you can soak them for up to three days in the fridge. You also can toast the nuts for an even more pronounced flavor. For a real treat, try using maple syrup and vanilla to sweeten it.


— Addie Broyles


2 cups pecan halves


2 cups water, preferably filtered or distilled for soaking pecans


2 cups water, preferably filtered or distilled for blending pecans


1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt


3 tablespoons light agave nectar or honey, optional


Combine pecan halves and 2 cups water in a clean, glass jar with tight-fitting lid.


Allow the pecans to soak in the water for one hour on the counter, and then place the jar in the refrigerator overnight.


Drain soaked pecans in strainer basket and rinse thoroughly.


Place soaked, rinsed pecans in a high-powered blender; add 2 cups water.


Blend on low speed until nuts begin to turn to paste. Slowly increase the speed and continue blending until mixture is thick and smooth, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add more water, a tablespoon at a time, if you prefer a thinner consistency.


Add salt and agave (or honey) to season. Blend just to combine. Pour milk in clean, glass container with tight-fitting lid. Keep refrigerated.


— From chef Sharon Hage, for the Texas Pecan Board


Paleo Pecan Granola Snack Mix


This nut- and seed-heavy granola doesn’t have any oats, and it’s sweetened with honey, making a hearty, protein-packed mix that you could eat by the bowl, blend into smoothies, serve as an ice cream topper or add to salads for a sweet crunch.


— Addie Broyles


2 cups pecan pieces


1 cup pecan halves


1 cup sunflower seeds, raw, shelled


1/2 cup coconut, shredded, unsweetened


1/4 teaspoon kosher salt


1 tablespoons coconut oil


1/4 cup honey


1 teaspoon vanilla extract


3/4 cup tart dried cherries


1/4 cup goji berries, dried


Heat oven to 350 degrees.


Line sheet pan(s) with parchment paper. In a large bowl, combine pecan pieces, pecan halves, sunflower seeds, coconut and salt. Stir to mix, set aside.


In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the coconut oil. Remove from the heat and whisk in the honey and vanilla.


Pour coconut oil mixture over the pecan mixture and stir well to combine thoroughly.


Spread mixture in a thin, even layer onto parchment-lined sheet pan(s). Bake, rotating pans during baking, until the granola is toasted golden brown and fragrant, about 15 to 20 minutes.


Remove from the oven and stir dried cherries and goji berries into the warm granola mixture.


Allow the mixture to completely cool. Store tightly covered in an airtight container.


— From chef Sharon Hage, for the Texas Pecan Board