By Brandon Frye – Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
Coleman, Okla. – A year and a half after spearheading the development of a new product for his family business–wearing the hats of a researcher, business planner, production manager, and engineer along the way– Mark Hamilton, retired Oklahoma educator and coach, found himself in a room full of Choctaw Nation employees explaining the natural benefits of pecan oil.
But the story of “Achukma,” 100% pure virgin pecan oil, does not start there in that room.
It starts with Hamilton, a family man, a businessman, an Oklahoman, and a man often seen wearing a cap and a pair of work boots. He is a figure-it-out kind of guy, and had to be during the production of “Achukma“ pecan oil.
“I was assigned the project with one directive: figure it out,” Hamilton said. The Hamilton family business, Tri-Agri Farm Center, lead by Mark’s father Dan Hamilton, had their hands in multiple products and services over the years, including animal feed and peanut handling. But, after the peanut growing business had moved out of Oklahoma and into Texas and other areas in 1999, the Hamiltons were left with equipment ready to be repurposed, a series of problems to be solved, and an opportunity.
And so began the journey that has led to the Hamiltons operating one of the largest pecan cleaning and marketing operations in Oklahoma. In the spring of 2013, the Hamiltons found themselves faced with a new challenge and a new opportunity. An unstable economic environment surrounding the production and sale of pecans left some Oklahoma growers and harvesters with crops of little value. And the normal selection process left many smaller pecans, and pieces of pecans, with no value at all.
But pecans are an important crop to Oklahoma, especially the native pecan. Oklahoma is very well suited for growing pecans, because the pecan tree is native to the area. Oklahoma produces, on average, 12 to 15 million pounds of pecans a year, according to Hamilton. Those pecans help generate money in cash crop value to the state of Oklahoma, and help provide jobs for people in the industry like harvesters and cleaners.
So, the Hamiltons began looking into ways to stabilize the market, benefit the growers, use more Oklahoma pecans, and offer a pure and healthy product to consumers. “To create another market venue for Oklahoma pecans, we started looking at pecan oil,” Hamilton said. “We asked what areas could benefit from a pecan-based product. Most of the pecan usage in this country is over the holidays, but we wanted a product that would allow people to benefit from pecans year-round.”
A few hurdles popped up along the way, the biggest of which was figuring out just how to get all of that healthy oil out of the pecan. “We developed a process that allows us to effectively extract the oil that is much more effective than the common process,” Hamilton said. They made adjustments to equipment, imported new and rare machines, and were left with a unique process.
It all happens at the Hamilton family business, which is tucked away down a side road in Coleman. Without looking closely, it might perfectly blend in with the rest of the small Oklahoma town. From a distance, there appears to be only a gray building, but once the road hooks around, a view opens up to a line of trees surrounding holding bins, trailers, and birds playing on equipment once used to prepare peanuts.
Walking into the room where “Achukma” pecan oil is made is like stepping through the gate of an old country road into a pristine laboratory. The walls are a shiny metallic, the ground is a smooth and spotless concrete, and the machines stand as simple bins, tubes, tanks, and machinery arranged to enact a streamlined experiment. During production, the pecans move through a series of procedures designed to keep the oil as fresh and pure as possible. Heat and chemicals, which would break down the oil, are never used. Instead, the pecans are spun and cold pressed as nearly all of the oil is extracted from the meat of the nut. In the end, pecan oil, pecan flour, and a form of pecan butter are left in a clean, whole, and pure state.
With a fresh product, the Hamiltons started researching names. “I am Choctaw, my family moved to Boggy Depot, Indian territory, in 1872 and have been here ever since. We embrace our Choctaw heritage. I wanted to have our name represent our intent, to provide a natural, healthy product. My mother found the word achukma, which can mean good, beautiful, pure; and one of these days, I intend for achukma to be recognized world-wide.” Hamilton added that they are well on their way to that, with customer interest from as far away as Egypt and China.
Almost two years later Hamilton found himself in what was later referred to as the Choctaw Nations’ version of the “Shark Tank” (a reality competition show where entrepreneurs make business presentations), the group had come together to explore in what ways the Hamilton family business could benefit from the programs the Choctaw Nation offers.
In regards to “Achukma“ pecan oil, the product of Hamilton’s labors, he said the health benefits are tremendous. “We have learned so much. It is a great cooking oil, is good for your skin, and is even good for treating leather. I am really excited about the potential.” This got the ball rolling and piqued the interest of the group. Dale Jackson, Senior Business Analyst for the Choctaw Nation, said that he works to take tribal members and their companies and help them grow. “I see a unique opportunity here,” he said, adding that his family has enjoyed using the pecan oil before.
The product practically sells itself, said Hamilton’s Director of Marketing, Russell Washington. “If you let me talk to someone for two or three minutes, they’ll buy it,” he said during the meeting. “It’s not that you have to convince them to buy it, it’s just that most people have never heard of pecan oil and are not aware of its nutritional benefits.”
Washington listed all of the perks and benefits of the oil to the group. It is gluten-free, so it is safe for people with gluten sensitivity or allergies. It is cold pressed and unrefined, so it stays as pure and healthy as the pecan itself. It contains antioxidants, which help prevent the oxidation and damage of cells. It contains healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids, which help with normal metabolism. It is never genetically modified, and so is a more natural and tasty product.
According to Dr. Lloyd Sumner, microbiologist with Noble Foundation Research in Ardmore, “We (Drs. Zhentian Lei and myself) are collaborating with Native American Specialty Products to better assess the chemical nature of the nutritional components of the pecan oil; especially antioxidant phenolics and polyunsaturated fats.” This research could lead to the understanding of even more beneficial applications of the pecan products.
And if the health benefits are not enough, Washington added, “My wife has tested it, and listen, guys, it makes the best chicken fried steak of your life.” Veree Shaw, Marketing Director for the Choctaw Nation, offered to help Hamilton and his pecan oil by looking into label printing and placing the items in Choctaw outlets like the welcome centers.
The Hamiltons offer more than just pecan oil for culinary creations. They also supply a pecan flour as a pure and unrefined sidekick to the oil. And a blend of the oil is also packaged and sold as New Life Leather Treatment. Their products are currently available online at Achukma, or over the phone at (580) 937-4300, and will soon be available through health food stores, Choctaw Nation outlets, and the venues are still growing.