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Short crop sends pecan prices up

Photo by Barry Levine

Photo by Barry Levine

ALBANY -- Pecan pie, a seasonal favorite this time of year, will be getting a little more pricey to make this holiday season.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service released its latest estimate for Georgia pecan production and lowered its prediction for the crop to 65 million pounds, down 13 percent from its October estimate. If that number holds, it will mean the crop will come in 28 percent below last year's.

The pecan crop normally has an alternating-year production of big and smaller crops, so 2010 was expected to be a bit of a down year. The Federal-State Market News Service reported Thursday that Desirables, the most popular variety, were selling for up to $5-$5.50 per pound for the best quality nuts with the price to growers at $2.65-$2.95 per pound for the best quality Desirables. The service said most nuts pulling in $5 or more per pound were being sold to the export market with some domestic use.

Consumers are already noticing the impact this year ... if they can find them.

"We changed our prices for the first time since we've been in business," Shirley Phelps of P&P Garden Center in Albany said Friday. "When people are used to seeing the prices lower, it makes a difference."

Phelps said her store also has been unable to get all of the six or seven varieties it normally stocks, with only Desirables, Elliotts and Schleys in this year. "We ran out several times and had to wait in line until we could get some more," she said.

Still, P&P has a pretty loyal customer base that seems to understand the economics of the situation. So far, they're more interested in getting the scarce nuts than they are worrying about paying a little more for them.

Phelps said customers are asking her to make "reservations" for bags of the pieces and halves that her store sells. "They're not complaining about the prices," she said. "They're just anxious about getting them."

Brent Chittenden, a statistician with the ag stat service for Georgia in Athens, said Friday that weather conditions in early fall knocked down a crop in Georgia that was already in the down year of its cycle. Normally, pecan crops are biggest in odd numbered years.

"You do have your alternating bearing cycle," he said. "Sometimes on the alternate years we can go all the way down into the 40s (million pounds, as in '06)."

In August, officials were thinking Georgia production might top 80 million pounds, but then the crop was hit with "drought, heat and everything that goes with it," Chittenden said.

The estimate was revised to 75 million pounds in October and shaved to 65 million pounds on Friday. "Sixty-five (million) in relation to an off year, it's probably about normal," he said.

In fact, if the 65 million pound estimate holds up it will be the second best "down" year of the decade, which has seen production drop to 45 million pounds in 2002 and 2004 and 42 million in 2006. The 70 million pounds produced in a "down" 2008 weren't far off two "up" years -- 2003 (75 million pounds) and 2005 (80 million pounds). The best seasons of the decade were 2007 (150 million pounds), followed by 2001 (110 million pounds) and 2009 (90 million pounds).

Crittenden said the hardest-hit growers are the ones who produce on a smaller scale, also known as "yard nuts." "Most of those are not going to be irrigated," he said.

Corporate growers normally irrigate their orchards and are less likely to be impacted by drought.

The ag stat service will take another look at the crop in April and release an estimate before tallying the final production numbers in May.