Staci Willson and her husband Alex are the 4th generation owners of Sunnyland Farms, a unique pecan farm, processor, manufacturer, and catalog retail business.
Located in what has long been known as the “Pecan Capital of the World” Albany, Georgia, Staci and Alex are continuing to honor their family’s legacy, and build a bright future.
Knowing that Sunnyland is a 4th generation family business, can you tell us a bit about the history of the company?
Sunnyland has a unique story. It started when my husband’s great-grandfather inherited beautiful pecan groves down here in Southwest Georgia, originally around 5,000 acres. Our groves today are around 1,700 acres, all planted with beautiful pecan trees. Alex’s granddad was a Harvard businessman, and after World War II decided he was gonna come down with his wife Jane from Atlanta and move to the agriculture hub of Albany, Georgia. They were already selling some of the Willson family pecans to college friends, etc., and thought there just might be something to that!
So they moved down here in the late 40s and started to cultivate the farm and started the mail-order business in 1948, just selling Sunnyland pecans. And from there it started to flourish. Then they started to add praline pecans, candies, cakes, and added other mixed nuts to their products. Developing relationships with nut farmers worldwide was crucial for maintaining Sunnyland’s standard of “Only the Best.” We still benefit from these relationships today, purchasing the highest quality almonds from California, Macadamias from South Africa, and gorgeous Cashews from India.
In the seventies, Larry, Alex’s dad, who is the third generation, came back and started to help his dad modernize the growing operation. He was one of the first pecan farmers in the industry to implement irrigation. He planted new and upcoming pecan varieties, which we are bearing the fruit from now. Pecan trees take 15-20 years to mature, so you really have to implement a long-term plan to see it through fruition.
With that long legacy, what are you and Alex doing now to keep it thriving?
Right, so Alex is the fourth generation. We moved back about six years ago and since we have been involved, we’ve been working on really modernizing the catalog business, the online business, the SEO, and all of the digital marketing and sales aspects of the business.
My thumbprint has been on most of the catalog business, recipe development and PR/Marketing. Our catalog is still a huge part of our business, we mail almost 3.2 million catalogs a year nationwide! You would think in the modern age, it might not be, but it is. And we’re really trying to minimize packaging and become greener. We’re working on sustainable energy as well, using some of our pecan shells to fuel our shelling plant.
Is there anything else that is unique about the company and your team?
I know I focused on the Willson men, but a legacy that Sunnyland has always had is a husband and wife partnership. And that started way back with Jane and Harry. They really were ahead of their time and Jane took such an active leadership role in the business. It continued with Larry and Beverly in the seventies, and now it continues with me and Alex, so it’s really a joint partnership and a beautiful legacy to continue.
We’re very, very proud to say that most of our workforce is 80% female. We have had really wonderful lifetime employees across the board as well. We just celebrated 44 years of retirement last week with one of our very best long-term employees. And that’s really something we’re proud of. It’s not an uncommon thing to have multi-generations working here, like we’ll have a mother and a daughter working in a department together.
How did you and Alex decide to come into the family business? Was that an easy decision?
We were living in Nashville at the time when Alex and I met, he was in the financial industry and I was working in the food industry. We were in our late twenties and I remember asking him, as you do in planning for your future, do you ever wanna go back and step into your dad’s/granddad’s footsteps? And I was asking myself, do I want to go back and be a part of this farm, this business, and this family? He never would rule it out and I wouldn’t rule it out either. It took us probably about five more years to make the final move down here from Atlanta.
In the end, the one thing that we wanted to do was make a difference. We love this community, and wanted Sunnyland to grow and thrive as an employer. We decided we can make a bigger difference by moving to Albany than we could by working in our respective industries in Atlanta. We can make a difference and continue a beautiful legacy of giving back.
And I was just fascinated with the farm, and the recipe development is something that I loved. It was really a no-brainer. It was a beautiful lifestyle change from Atlanta down here, and a great place to raise the family, and really put our roots down and give back.
On a personal note, is there someone who you looked up to as a hero growing up?
I would definitely have to say Julia Child. I come from the beverage and food hospitality industry, and she was just such a pioneer and leader. As a female within that industry and gaining the respect she did and continues to have, she is someone that I’ve always looked up to. I’m not a chef, I’m a cook, and I love all of her recipes, and her personality, and just her fearlessness. She had so much courage to lead in the male-driven, culinary world. Man, what I wouldn’t give to have a cup of coffee with her and discuss these things!
What is the biggest leadership lesson you have learned along the way?
Definitely flexibility. Since we’ve moved back, we’ve dealt with devastating weather events, like Hurricane Michael where we lost 5,000 trees, a whole crop. Then we are dealing with the new digital marketing landscape that exists now. And then COVID. So we’ve been in constant crisis management since we moved back.
Now dealing with inflation and production shortages that affect our business from start to finish. So I have really had to work on flexibility. Things are always going to change. The life cycle of the business cycle is going to go up, and it’s going to go down.
And you manage that through embracing leadership within. We are very, very big on individual voices and we appreciate honesty and directness from our management leaders. We couldn’t do it without them.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Wow. I would probably say commitment. Commitment to things that matter. Commitment to quality. Commitment to roots, to people, our team, to family, to Sunnyland. I moved around a lot in my life prior to this, and joining this family and this business and everything… roots mean a lot to me. I want to invest in people’s futures. We’re going to figure out ways to thrive in the middle of these crises. I think that’s something that we’ve done and will continue to do.
This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
Oh my goodness, there have been so many. I would probably go all the way back to my middle school chorus teacher, Miriam Walton in Richmond Virginia. She was so dynamic and so energetic. She led by example and encouraged my growth as a performer and singer. She had so much energy and passion for what she did. We still keep in touch and I’m proud to know her.
She encouraged me to step out and have courage, and believe in my talent. Getting up and singing a solo was difficult in middle school, but she encouraged me and gave me the opportunity to do that. And I think that honed some amount of leadership, learning to push through fear and knowing what courage looks like. And I know that may sound silly in middle school at a spring concert, but I look back at that and I really appreciate the influence she had on me.
That’s great. I think middle school is one of the most difficult times to stand up yourself, but if you can do it in middle school, you can do it forever.
Right. You know if you can do it in that moment, then you can do it forever, and in many other eras in your life.
Staci and Alex Willson are co-owners of Sunnyland Farms, a 1,760 acre farm nestled in the heart of Pecan Country in Albany, Georgia. Since 1948 Sunnyland has been the premier provider of gourmet Georgia Pecans, nuts, chocolates, dried fruits, and assortments of gifts for all occasions. Their incredible gourmet, heart-healthy and Kosher-certified snacks and pecans are the perfect treats. To learn more about Sunnyland Farms, visit their website: sunnylandfarms.com
Photography by David Parks