A Return to the Family Tree

by Sarah Hopwood • Photography by Pauline Stevens

Walking the streets of Seguin, Texas, is a passport back to a simpler time. Oak-lined streets lead the way through this modest town of 27,000, and its one main street showcases the requisite small-town-Texas necessities: the bank, the diner…the giant concrete-and-plaster pecan proudly perched just outside the Seguin courthouse. Yes, you’re deep in pecan country, and Mark Walls has just returned home to his grandfather’s farm. Like many people in his generation, Walls left this town for college and pursued a life of bigger dreams. An education at Texas State University led him to a steady job in technology sales and entrepreneurship—he and his wife started a medical billing company in Austin some years ago and have seen a good amount of success. But Seguin was embedded in his heart from birth, and the steady and constant pull from his grandfather’s legacy could no longer be ignored.

Photo above caption: Gary Rainwater, Chad Walls and Mark Walls standing in the 38 Pecans grove holding a photo of "the world's largest pecan," in Seguin.

Walls’ grandfather, E.W. “Doc” Darilek, grew up during the Great Depression in a small town about an hour from Seguin, and like millions of others at the time, “couldn’t rub two nickels together.” Darilek barely made it out of the eighth grade, yet despite the hardship, went on to become a dentist. He moved to Seguin in 1948 and purchased a 540-acre parcel of land with riverfront access—ideal for growing pecan trees. Walls remembers visiting the farm often where Darilek would repeatedly tell him the story of how he and his father started the orchard, nurtured the native trees and grafted 38 different varietals of improved pecan trees. Darilek would also talk about how important it was to create this legacy. He was very proud of what he’d achieved—not only for his family, but also for the community of Seguin. In fact, Darilek so loved his pecan trees that in 1962, he constructed and then gifted the city with the aforementioned giant pecan homage. Darilek passed away in 1992, leaving his beloved pecan orchard to Walls, his brother Chad and son-in-law (and Walls’ stepfather) Gary Rainwater. And up until recently, Rainwater had been the sole caretaker of the farm. “Gary cares for Doc’s orchard better than anyone else,” says Walls. “He has everything to do with how well our orchard is doing.” But Walls always knew that going back to his roots was in the cards. “In the past, timing has held me back,” he says. “But now, all the stars are aligning to move forward with this passion.”

And time is of the essence: Family pecan farms in Texas have been struggling in recent years. Local pecan farmers say their costs have multiplied tenfold since the 1960s. And pecan farmers are a dying breed—literally. According to USDA statistics, the average age of a Texas pecan farmer has risen—jumping from 56 in 2002 to 60 in 2012—while it had stayed stagnant at 52 years old for the previous 20 years. In addition, fewer and fewer of the children and grandchildren of pecan-growing families are staying on the farm to take over the businesses as their parents step down. As a result, Texas is seeing a disturbing drop in the number of pecan farms—losing 718 between 2007 and 2012. “We get inquiries in the mail pretty often from people wanting to buy the land,” says Rainwater’s wife, Sarah. “Not the pecans, just the land.” “And the young people are selling their farms,” adds Rainwater. “They’re dividing the land into fifty-acre parcels and selling them to housing developers or bigger corporate farms. They don’t have the money or it’s too much work for them.”

38pecans2Even in light of the numbers and facts, Walls took the risk and quit his job to take over the farm business and preserve the legacy. And he recently purchased The Pecan Barn in nearby Lockhart—a pecan shelling-and-selling hub that serviced several small pecan farmers for over a decade. Previous owners and pecan farmers, Sue and Gary Dickenson, had reached retirement age and, like so many others in the industry, were ready to move on. The newly renamed “38 Pecans” (coined in honor of Darilek’s 38 varietals), will serve as a continuation of The Pecan Barn, as well as a place to wholesale pecans from the orchard in Seguin.

In a rapidly changing environment, it’s these kinds of steps that count toward preserving small farms, and therefore Texas pecan culture. “I want to grow this business and set it up for my kids and their future,” says Walls. After 20 years in business sales, his return to the farm business just feels right. “This orchard is in our blood,” he says. “And the farm is an extension of our family. If it died out, it would be letting Doc down.”

Find out more at 38pecans.com or call 512-766-6964.