Published on 11/18/98

Georgia Farmers' Holiday Pecans in Short Supply

Pecan lovers face as dry a winter as the farmers faced this summer. The Georgia pecan crop is estimated at only 60 million pounds, down about 45 percent from last year.

"We're looking at a much smaller crop than we thought," said Tom Crocker, an Extension Service horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "The nuts just didn't mature out like we thought they would."

The holiday season brings both good and bad news for pecan growers. Because of the small crop, prices are up -- way up. But most farmers can't supply enough pecans to meet the holiday demand.

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GOLDEN PECANS are worth nearly that much this year. Weather conditions just the opposite of perfect for pecans dropped this year's crop yields by nearly 45 percent. One pecan wholesaler said consumers should expext to pay double last year's prices for pecan gifts.

Candy makers and specialty shops are willing to pay top dollar for the scarce pecans to meet their holiday gift orders, said Ron Cannon, a buyer at Young Pecan Company in Albany, Ga.

"So if you have plans to give pecans as gifts this winter, be ready to pay nearly twice what you did last year," he said.

The good news is that 150 million pounds of the 1997 crop are still available. "The carry-over from last year will help supply this year's demand," Cannon said.

Cannon said he's seen fewer and lower-quality nuts come into their warehouse. "The most noticeable effect is the drop in meat quantity," Cannon said.

In most years, pecan meat would be about half of the total weight of the nut. Cannon said the pecans this year are off about five or 10 percentage points. So in a ton of in-shell pecans, only 800 to 900 pounds is pecan meat.

Cannon said they're seeing many pecans with blight or other disease, further dropping the quality.

Crocker said the weather seemed to be just the opposite of what pecans needed. It was too wet last winter and spring, then too dry through the summer. Then, just when farmers began hoping for sunny days to mature the crop, came cloud- laden cold fronts.

"We'd hoped the rain from Hurricane Earl would help fill out the nuts. But it ended up just knocking a lot of them off the trees and even tearing off limbs," Crocker said. Hurricane Georges followed soon after and didn't offer pecan farmers any relief, either.

Rain at the wrong times increased disease problems in pecan orchards.

"It's just been a bad year," he said. "Not only do we have fewer nuts, but the ones we have are of lower quality."

Farmers report that nearly half of their crop (44 percent) is of poor or very poor quality. A little more than half of the crop (56 percent) has been harvested.