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New Mexico pecan specialists see bright future for pecan growers

New Mexico pecan specialists see bright future for pecan growers
An increasing global demand for pecans offers a bright spot for the industry.

While the weather across the Southwest has not provided the most favorable conditions for pecan production this year, the region remains in the running as the hot spot for pecan nut production in 2014, despite of an off-year in pecan’s alternate bearing production cycle in New Mexico.

According to the latest pecan crop production estimate for 2014, Georgia and Texas are battling it out for top pecan nut production state this year with each looking at an estimated 65 million pounds of pecans. Not far behind, however, is the estimated 55 million pounds expected for New Mexico growers.

But crop experts at the recent Tri-State (Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi) annual meeting held in late July say remaining summer and early fall weather could change those estimates, and unexpected spikes in pest and disease incidents could clear the playing field before the season's end early next year.

Overall, U.S. pecan production is dispersed throughout the South and Southwest with a total of 14 states that produce pecans commercially, including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.

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If early production estimates for 2014 remain on target, the leading producing states, following New Mexico, include Arizona (18 million pounds), Louisiana (16 million pounds), Oklahoma (15 million pounds) and Alabama (9 million pounds), rounding out the top seven producing states. Overall, U.S. pecan production for 2014 is estimated to top the 255 million pound mark, down from most "bumper crops" in modern times.

But even with ideal weather conditions and little pest and disease pressure for the remainder of the year, domestic pecan demand across the U.S. will affect the industry's bottom line. Demand has remained more or less steady over the last 35 years, though a recent trend of marketing pecans as a healthy food has helped in some markets.

An increasing global demand for pecans offers a bright spot for the industry, offsetting a less robust domestic consumption. But even those numbers have declined more than once in recent years as prices varied according to production problems, most notably drought in recent years.

While the U.S. accounts for about 75 percent of all pecan production in the world, Georgia, Texas and New Mexico produce almost 75 percent of the nation's pecan nut production. In spite of the robust cornering of the domestic industry, Southwest producers are wondering if the future in the nut business is promising considering factors like water availability and increased input costs.

Hope remains for industry

Jay Lillywhite, Jennifer Simonsen, and Richard Heerema from New Mexico State University say, depending on U.S. marketing strategies and the growing intensity of competition from Mexico, hope remains for Southwest pecan producers because of the growing popularity of pecans.

The New Mexico researchers recently designed a survey to get a better picture of the current and future demand for U.S.-grown pecans. The survey explored consumer demographics, nutrition knowledge, and purchasing preferences. A report on their findings was published recently in HortTechnology, the official publication for the American Society for Horticulture Science.

According to that report, almost three-quarters of the survey respondents reported they consumed pecans on a regular basis. Results also showed that pecans were more widely consumed in the southern U.S. than in other regions of the country.

"This is logical given the regional eating patterns and the prevalence of pecan production in southern states," researchers noted in the report. "Respondents from this region could be more familiar with the uses for and taste of pecans, as well as having increased access to pecans."

Good taste is benefit

The report indicated the leading reason offered for consumer preference for pecans was for their "good taste." Some 89 percent of respondents listed taste as the primary reason for a diet that included tree nuts.

The report also noted that factors working against the pecan industry include fluctuating retail prices for nuts. Like most commodities, supply and demand determine the price of pecans at the supermarket.

During times of increased disease or pest pressure, like last year in Georgia, or unfavorable crop weather like the historic droughts of the Southwest in recent years, supply becomes limited while demand remains steady, forcing retail prices higher.

Also, recent years have seen spikes in demand from global markets like China, which also force prices higher and reduce domestic supply. But in years when production out-weighs demand, prices drop, sometimes drastically, making nuts more popular among consumers but less profitable for producers.

The report concludes that while good marketing remains central to the success of the U.S. nut industry, the greatest advantage to the U.S. pecan industry in the years ahead will be the continuing practice of providing high-quality varieties that offer both good taste and nutrition—the best strategy to ensure a bright future for the nation's pecan growers.




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