Georgia has long been known as the nation’s largest supplier of pecans, accounting for about an 88 million pound harvest and representing a third of U.S. pecan production.
Not so entering 2020 as a year after Hurricane Michael’s 115-mile-per-hour winds ravaged nut tree orchards, farmers are still struggling as they harvest this year’s crop.
According to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service: “In an average year, farmers harvest between 1300-1400 pounds of pecans per acre, but this year’s production is down by more than half those numbers.”
“We’ll be lucky if we pick up 500 pounds per acre this year,” says extension coordinator Brian Hayes. “Trees that were left standing --- and many were not ---lost a large percentage of limbs, so there is less fruiting wood to produce nuts.”
According to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, “While pecan production throughout the U.S. is expected to increase this year by more than 20% with an estimated 281 million pounds, production in Georgia will come in lower than traditional numbers at 76 million pounds, followed by Texas (47 million pounds, up 8 ½% from 2018, despite problems with flooding), Arizona, and Oklahoma.”
NEW MEXICO TOPS
This year’s blue ribbon prize winner will be New Mexico, where USDA estimates an increased production of 6 percent based on a forecasted record high of 97 million pounds for the current harvest. New Mexico first surpassed Georgia last year after the howling hurricane winds decimated some 32,400 acres, downed trees, and dropped production dramatically.
And because pecan trees take nearly a decade to produce and a couple years more to turn a respectable profit, the significant amount of trees lost mean it could be upwards of 10 years for Georgia growers to fully recover.
The USDA’s Western Region Pecan Report of Dec. 3 for New Mexico, Arizona, and West Texas, the first Western Region report of the year, showed “Good demand for quality pecans with variable quality in the early stages of harvest. Buying interest displayed by end-users was fairly active for in-shell and gift pack use and moderate for commercial sheller use as shellers continue to utilize inventories on hand. Some growers are deferring making marketing decisions, opting instead to concentrate on harvesting and holding nuts for later sale.”
John White, Director of the Western Pecan Growers Association, says that by mid-December, “We’re just kinda getting started on harvest this year. Some areas have been hit with rain, some have already reported frost, while other areas continue to be mild with leaves just starting to fall off the trees, so it’s kind of a mixed bag at this point and nobody’s really wholeheartedly hitting the harvest yet.
“It’s still kind of hit-and-miss where some folks who feel they’re ready are going in while others are still awaiting a cold snap to help dry things down. We really don’t have a good idea what the crop will be at this point.
“Some growers are optimistic, while some others are expecting a light crop. We need to wait and see what some of the stuff coming in looks like and what the tonnage might be. Hard to judge what the overall effect will be this year. It’s supposed to be close to a record, but we’ll have to wait and see if that holds up.”
WPGA Board Member Phillip Arnold, a grower for over 40 years, is less optimistic. “We had an early freeze in mid-October and a hard freeze in Mesilla Valley on Halloween that surprised us because that normally happens somewhere around mid-November.
“We were hopeful we might possibly hit the upside of 90 million pounds this harvest, perhaps even hit the 100 million mark, but the early freeze will definitely affect that tonnage,” he said.
“The premature cold should also result in some quality issues like an increased stick-tight problem where the hull adheres to the nut and more off-grade stuff than we’ve had in the past few years because the outside of some trees burned with the early frost.
“I’ve heard reports of Georgia coming in at 50-70 million pounds this year, so we should still be #1 in production, but my guess at this point is a harvest of somewhere in the 80-85 million pound range.”
New Mexico produces pecans on nearly 52,000 acres in the southern part of the state with most product coming from the Mesilla and Hatch Valleys and the Pecos River Valley, although expansion in pecan acreage is being noted further north as raising pecans continues to replace cotton acreage because cotton prices continue to drop.
As to the final numbers this year, grower Arnold concedes --- “It’s amazing just how close we actually get with our predictions, but in the end, there are always surprises because we’re dealing with an unpredictable Mother Nature.”