Pecan crop is smaller than expected, but quality is high
ALBANY, Ga. - This is the season when consumers go nuts for pecans, a popular ingredient in fruit cakes, pies and candies with sweet Southern names like divinity and pralines.
The nuts are grown across the southern tier from South Carolina to California, but thanks in part to a failed land-speculation scheme in the early 1900s, Georgia remains the largest producer, with the heaviest concentration of trees in three southwestern counties, Dougherty, Mitchell and Lee.
Southerners grow up with pecans. To increase their popularity elsewhere, the industry launched a campaign in the late 1990s that included health studies which found that pecans, like other tree nuts, were heart healthy, high in antioxidants and packed with nutrients. They contain lots of fat, but it's unsaturated fat - the kind that's considered "good fat."
"We hope folks in the rest of the country know about pecans," said Larry Willson, vice president of Sunnyland Farms in Albany, a mail-order company specializing in gift packs containing all types of nuts, including pecans.
"The quality this year is very good, which often happens in short years," said Willson, who is also the farm manager for Willson Farming Co., which grows 1,300 acres of pecans. "The trees don't have as many nuts on them to fill out."
Growers report record prices and excellent quality this year, but there's a hitch - they have substantially fewer nuts to sell. For this reason, they aren't expecting 2006 to go down as a banner year.
"It was probably one of the shortest, if not the shortest on record," said Joey Collins, who grows 1,100 acres of the nuts in the Thomasville area and operates a plant that removes rocks and twigs that are picked up when the nuts are harvested.
"The quality has been really good, but the quantity has been really bad," he said. "Even with the big prices, it won't offset the lack of quantity. There's still going to be some pretty big losses taken out there."
Pecans grow on alternate-bearing trees that produce big crops one year and smaller crops the next. They were expected to produce a smaller crop this year, but a drought last year stressed the trees, reducing the yield even more.
In early estimates, Georgia was expected to produce about 45 million pounds, but Lenny Wells, a pecan specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service, believes it'll be more like 40 million, 19 million less than the state's five-year average.
Prices normally peak at the start of the harvest season in October as buyers rush to supply the demand for pecans to fill holiday gift packs, but by now they've fallen considerably, said Wells.
Schley, a common variety, has dropped from $2.30 per pound early in the season to about $1.55, and Desirable, another popular variety, has dropped from more-than $2 per pound to about $1.72, Wells said.
"The quality is excellent this year," he said. "We had some dry weather throughout most of the year. The disease pressure was extremely low. That and the dry weather causes the nut size to be a little smaller than normal, making them easier to fill."
Georgia is not the only state plagued by a smaller-than-anticipated crop.
"There are production problems everywhere," Wells said, noting that the Texas crop was hurt by an extended drought and the New Mexico crop got hammered by hail.
U.S. growers had a large crop totaling 259.6 million pounds last year, but they're expected to harvest only 201.4 million pounds this year, 21.5 percent less than the 10-year average of 256.6 million pounds.
Speculators planted millions of trees in the Albany area in the early 1900s, hoping to sell the land in small lots to newcomers. The scheme failed, others acquired the land and turned pecans into a major crop.
As a result, Georgia continued as the leading producer last year, followed by Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma.