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Prices low as pecan harvest begins

MISSISSIPPI STATE — Mississippi pecan growers are harvesting a mixed bag this year as weather, diseases, insects and poor market prices leave little incentive for the harvest effort.

James Chiles of Clarksdale, Miss., is president of the Mississippi Pecan Growers Association. He said growers in some parts of the state are reporting crop failures due in part to dry conditions near the end of July that caused trees to shed nuts. Insects and diseases also have been a problem in some orchards.

"The state has widely varying conditions. Until you get your pecans in a sack, you don't know what you've got. For the last five years, we've had less rainfall than normal, and the majority of our recent years have been a challenge for producing a good crop," Chiles said.

"Many of the pecans we did have on trees were knocked off green by Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili," Chiles said. "Those storms also took limbs and leaves that will impact future crops because with pecans, the weather one year will affect the next years' crops."

Chiles said his association has been working with Sen. Thad Cochran's office for relief assistance.

"Even in a decent year like 2001, recent prices have been so bad it's hard for growers to decide if it's worth the cost of harvesting," Chiles said. "That is why we want to establish pecans as a program crop (like crops such as cotton, corn, wheat and rice). Then we will be able to put pecans in a government loan program and have a safety net for our prices."

Chiles said another frustration is that the new farm bill authorized federal crop insurance for pecans only in Georgia. Cochran recently worked to make that benefit available nationwide and still is working to establish uniform premiums nationwide.

David Ingram, Mississippi State University's associate plant pathologist at the Central Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Raymond, Miss., said there were isolated cases of disease and insect problems.

"For the most part, the 2002 crop has had very little disease pressure or else growers controlled it. Diseases are not a concern once the nuts reach maturity," Ingram said. "Meat quality appears to be average to above average because of the lack of disease damage."

Ingram said excessive rains from the tropical storm and hurricane were the worst aspect of the 2002 growing season. The wet conditions were causing increased moisture content in the nuts and complicating harvest.

"The biggest concern for growers, however, is the price, which is expected to be down because of last year's bumper crop," Ingram said. "There has been a resurgence in pecans, both from private homeowners and commercial orchards. It takes six to eight years for a tree to reach maturity, depending on tree size at planting and growing conditions. A lot of people still have pecans in the freezer from last year."

Randolph Smith, one of Mississippi's largest commercial pecan producers, said his Hinds County orchard had some disease challenges that required eight treatments to prevent losses in nuts or nut quality. However, his biggest challenge has been the added time and expense of cleaning up after the two major storms and harvesting the crop.

"The main problem this year has been the harvest weather. Plus, it took at least a week to clean up after each storm," he said.

Smith said early prices have been decent, but he anticipates a drop-off to occur soon. The retail price is running between $2 and $3 per pound on quality cracked pecans. Wholesale gift packs are about $1.30 per pound.

Linda Breazeale writes for MSU Ag Communications.

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