China nuts for Georgia pecans

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- For the majority of Georgia's pecan growers, 2007 will always be remembered as a year of changing fortunes ... in a good way.

The weather was great -- periods of sunshine with timely rainfall -- and the resulting crop was not only high-yield, its quality is still considered by many in the industry as perhaps the best ever.

Probably more importantly, though, 2007 was the year China came calling.

"Yeah, a lot of people got well in '07," Larry Willson of Albany-based Willson Farming Co. and Sunnyland Farms Inc., said. "All the stars aligned that year."

Indeed. An industry that had seen -- because of poor management practices by some and the sell-off of prime orchard land for development -- a steep production downturn earlier in the decade made a dramatic turnaround that kicked into full gear in 2007 and has continued for the past three seasons.

And people in the industry point to China's growing interest in the pecan as a dietary staple as one of the crucial factors in the turnaround.

"You can go back as recently as 2005, and China brought only around a couple of million pounds of our pecans," University of Georgia assistant professor of horticulture Lenny Wells, considered the state's pecan expert, said. "But around 2007 that total went up to around 90 million pounds. It jumped that quickly."

China's taste for American, and thus, Georgia, pecans has not abated.

"China bought between 80 and 85 million pounds of pecans last year," Brad Haire, the news director for the University of Georgia's College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, said. "That's an amount about equal to all the pecans grown in Georgia for the year."

And since the United States produces around 80 percent of the world's pecans -- and Georgia is the No. 1 pecan-producing state in the union -- it's easy to see why people in the industry have been happy to meet the growing demand for the nut in China and, more recently, India.

In fact, officials with the Georgia Pecan Growers Association, which is involved with information, marketing and lobbying for state farmers, say their eyes remain firmly on the export market.

"Some of the state's growers went to China 10 or 12 years ago and talked with agriculture officials there about the health benefits of pecans," GPGA Executive Director Janice Dees said. "That paved the way for the explosion that came a few years ago.

"We've done some promoting in countries like China and India, which are the world's two most populous countries. They're very health-conscious there, and our product was a perfect fit for them."

Retired professor Randy Hudson, who is a fourth-generation pecan grower, was one of the state's first growers to visit China. He has "lots of acres" of pecan trees in Wilcox, Dodge, Dooly, Ben Hill and Irwin counties, which he manages for his Ocilla-based Hudson Pecan Co.

Hudson said expanding the nut's export potential helped alleviate much of the fallout growers experienced from the "boom-or-bust market" long associated with the crop.

"I made my first visit to China in 1999," he said. "At the time pecan growers were subject to a boom-or-bust market because of the alternate-bearing nature of pecans. Prices had to increase and become more stable to make this a sustainable-growth industry.

"The only way I could see to get away from the cyclic pricing of the crop was to find another market. I started looking hard at exporting."

According to the Ag Marketing Resource Center, the total U.S. pecan crop last year was 259.7 million pounds, valued at $556 million. Roughly a third of that total -- 40,622 metric tons -- was exported.

That, according to Willson, could come back to bite the growers over the long haul.

"As a grower and a sheller/retailer, I see things from both sides," Willson said. "Yes, the farmers are making money hand over fist right now, but because there is such a huge export market, I think we're stealing from our domestic customers. We're getting $7 a pound for our nuts wholesale now. And they're selling at retail for, what, more than $10 a pound?

"Domestic shellers controlled the market until about five years ago, but that's changed with the boom of the export market. I don't know if that's going to remain a good thing over time."

Wells said a recent area survey showed that as many as 2,000 new acres of pecan trees were planted in the last few years, indicating the industry's growth has been substantial enough to convince would-be growers to make the "10- to 12-year commitment" needed to start a viable operation.

"I think the estimates (of increased acreage) are conservative," the former Dougherty County extension agent said. "I think the record prices we've been seeing are going to hold up for a while, especially if the export market continues to expand. And with headway being made in India and some European countries, that's very likely.

"With increased demand, growers have begun to utilize better management practices. They can better regulate the alternate-bearing seasons by replanting some of the older, overcrowded orchards -- especially in the Dougherty County area -- and upgrading irrigation systems that had been inadequate."

Willson agrees, noting that because of better management practices in the industry, the pecan crops since the historic 2007 season have seen "very little drop-off."

"You see people thinning and replanting more frequently now, and their trees become more manageable," he said. "They're at heights where they get the proper amounts of water and sunshine, and growers are better able to maintain integrated pest management.

"Early estimates from Louisiana indicate we're going to have a shorter 'on-year' yield than we had during last year's off year. I don't know if that's going to be accurate. Every indication we've gotten is that this could be a pretty good crop."

And, in the pecan industry these days, a pretty good crop means really good money.

As Haire joked: "People pronounce the nuts PEE-cans and pe-KAHNS. The way you pronounce it depends on the price the nuts are bringing. If they're bringing 50 cents a pound, they're PEE-cans. If they're bringing above $2 a pound, they're pe-KAHNS."

In Georgia, thanks to China and a growing list of major importers, there'll be nothing but pe-KAHNS falling from those trees in the coming months.