Georgia pecan crop back from 2018 hurricane, profit a tough nut to crack

Hurricane Michael wiped out about one-fifth of Georgia's pecan acreage in 2018. Many farmers have since replanted the trees they lost, but this year brought another cruel setback: low prices for their abundant crops. Photo credit: Georgia Department of Agriculture (2018)

Georgia pecan growers looked up in their trees earlier this year and liked what they saw: a bounty of young nuts flourishing among the branches.

After a run of hard years, the quality and volume of the favorite holiday nut would not disappoint. The same, however, cannot be said for the prices.

A combination of forces – not the least of which is a worsening pandemic that has slowed the movement of goods across the globe – have left growers who started out the season hopeful with a glut of pecans and prices so low farmers are left hesitant to sell.

“What’s the old phrase? They’re all dressed up and nowhere to go,” said Georgia Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black. “That’s kind of where we are. We’re dressed up in the fact we have an enormous crop, and I mean a good crop.”

Pecan farmers have spent the last two years cleaning up and replanting after Hurricane Michael pummeled pecan orchards in southwest Georgia. Slow-to-arrive federal relief aid reached the hard-hit growers left out of an earlier round of relief through a $347 million block grant this year. About 400 pecan producer and landowner applications were approved, drawing down about $36 million, Black said.

Trade tensions with a key customer, China, and an abundance of cheap nuts from Mexico and other countries have also hindered American growers, although consumers likely will not notice the difference at the grocery store cash register.

Marianne Brown, who farms with her family in Leesburg, said at this point she’s just hoping to break even this year. Brown is among the growers left trying to decide what to do with their handsome crop, and she worries that settling for a low price this year could put them at a disadvantage next year.

But holding onto pecans for next year adds another expense – and some farmers cannot afford to wait with bills coming due – and there’s always the risk that hold-over nuts could lead to another year of excess supply and low prices.

“My husband and I, along with my dad, all work really long hours. You want to see the fruits of your labor,” said Brown, who is in the middle harvesting the more than 1,000 acres the family farms near Albany. “The pounds are high and the quality is excellent overall.

“It makes you feel proud when you see your final product, but it hurts your feelings when you see this year’s prices,” she said.

Statewide, Georgia’s growers are expected to produce as much as 120 million pounds of pecans this year, which could put Georgia in a position to reclaim the mantle as the nation’s top producing pecan state. That title slipped away to New Mexico after Hurricane Michael.

“We had a really good crop this year, best crop we’ve had in years. But from a price standpoint, it’s a total disaster,” said University of Georgia Cooperative Extension pecan specialist Lenny Wells. “So, this is going to be another big hit now three years in a row for growers.”

The increased production even in spite of the 740,000 trees lost just two years ago is in large part due to the plantings done over the last decade to keep up with demand from China. It will take years for the post-hurricane replacement trees to start producing.

Black, the state agricultural commissioner, said his office was working to establish new markets in Taiwan and other countries, but COVID-19 has stalled those efforts. He said he’s also concerned about the potential long-term impacts of Mexican production and what it will mean for pecans and other Georgia staples, like blueberries.

“We’re still going to be in a leadership position, I think, but we’ve just got to be aggressive in finding a place for all these products to go,” Black said.

Wells said the public can support pecan growers by purchasing directly from farmers. The state Department of Agriculture has a list online of pecan growers across the state with a map to locate nearby farms. Many of them also ship directly to customers. The Georgia Pecan Growers Association also has a list of suppliers online.