Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pecan crop down but not out

By William Pack - Express-News Between the drought, an untimely freeze and heavy rain in early fall, pecan growers in Texas faced challenges this year that will keep the holidays from being as cheerful as they might have been.

“We were going to have a real good crop and everything went wrong with it,” said Kenneth Pape with Pape Pecan House in Seguin.

His own orchards produced about 30 percent of an average crop.

“First not enough rain, then too much rain,” he said.

But Texas is a big state with a lot of growing areas that make it the third-largest pecan producer in the nation, trailing Georgia and more recently New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.

Growers in South Texas around San Antonio and southwest toward Eagle Pass may have experienced the worst problems because they harvested earliest when rains were the heaviest.

Central and West Texas growers weren't spared rain problems, either, and many also dealt with a spring freeze that weakened early-maturing varieties.

Still, officials said irrigation practices and quality control efforts have kept the pecan count in Texas decent.

The USDA says Texas will produce 60 million pounds of the nut this year, about 14 percent less than two years ago, the last “on year” in the alternating production cycle of pecans.

Cindy Wise, executive vice president of the Texas Pecan Growers Association, said weather issues should not cause severe problems.

“It's actually going pretty good considering all the rain we've had,” said Larry Stein, a Texas A&M University horticulturalist at its extension research center in Uvalde. “It did hinder quality a little, but it didn't ruin it.”

Consumers across Texas may not notice much difference.

H-E-B spokeswoman Dya Campos said that early in the holiday season, pecans were slightly smaller than normal. The grocery chain only gets pecans from Texas growers, Campos said, but H-E-B has gotten about the same amount of pecans as normal from its growers, and the price is about the same as last year.

Pape, who buys and sells pecans throughout Texas, said demand initially was weak but recently, “everyone wants them.”

Even China has started buying pecans in a big way, which has strengthened prices for growers in the past weeks, Pape said.

Prospects for growers will vary depending on when their crop matures and the effects of freezing temperatures and rain.

Some nuts may have received rains at the right time for them mature. But others that already had matured or could not be harvested because of flooded fields may have sprouted or developed other problems that affected their quality.

Tera Macmanus, who with her husband owns Pleasant Valley Pecans near Pleasanton, said she only harvested about a third of her crop because of sprouting problems caused by rains.

“There's not much you can do about it,” Macmanus said. “That's just farming.”