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Pecan: The Profit Nut

January 29, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

VISALIA, Calif. — The nation's troubled farm communities, struggling with foreclosures, surplus production and foreign competition, have held little appeal for those looking to relocate home or business.

Yet, Randy Sadler greeted news of his job transfer to the agricultural heart of the San Joaquin Valley with a great deal of enthusiasm. Sadler and his wife, Doris, have long been anxious to leave the congestion of Los Angeles and return to something decidedly rural and slow-paced.

Having received their wish, the couple set out to find a home and several acres of land "with lots of trees" somewhere near this farming center, about 40 miles south of Fresno. The two finally decided upon a ranch-style house complete with 10 adjacent acres of orchard.

Now, 18 months later, the Sadlers realize that they had inadvertently purchased a small piece of what may be one of the nation's most profitable crops: California pecans.

The income from the nuts is not enough for Sadler to forsake his job with a local utility company, but it's an awfully nice accident.

"I think we really stumbled onto something," Doris Sadler said. "They are very pretty trees and make such a pleasant surrounding. And that we can make some money from them is an added bonus."

The Sadlers' good fortune is attributable mostly to luck. But others here have been quietly hailing the arrival of pecans--particularly as demand for this state's walnuts and almonds have softened. In fact, California pecans seem to exemplify what happens when all the pieces finally come together in agriculture.

Brian Blain is a pioneer in this crop, which is still a somewhat foreign commodity to most Central Valley growers. His family has worked for more than a decade to make possible the income that the Sadlers and others are now enjoying.

Blain owns several hundred acres of pecan orchards in addition to California Nut Shellers, a company that processes and ships the amber, meaty nuts.

In the early 1970s, few of Blain's farmer colleagues would say anything encouraging about locally cultivating a tree native to parts of the South and Texas.

"Fifteen years ago, all the old guys said to us, 'You can't grow pecans in California 'cause the nut won't fill out.' At the time, there was a lot of stubbornness," Blain said.

Not so anymore, as Blain's trees are entering their peak production cycle after undergoing several years of dormant infancy and adolescence, in which few of the green-hulled kernels appeared.

"There are a lot of people around here today who want to buy pecan orchards, but there aren't any available for sale," he said. "Those that have groves are not interested in selling."

What makes pecans so economically desirable is the fact that U.S. growers usually have difficulty producing enough to satisfy national demand, even though the nut is grown in 16 states.

The American appetite for pecans can reach as much as 300 million pounds annually, according to Norman Winter, executive director of the National Pecan Marketing Council in Bryan, Tex. However, estimates place 1986's harvest at 226 million pounds, down about 16% from previous seasons' average, Winter said.

At present, almost all pecans are diverted to industrial customers for use in baked goods, ice cream and confections, with a mere 10% of the total sold either roasted or in the shell as a snack food. This imbalance is perceived as an opportunity for growers to further increase demand and consumption by developing the out-of-hand market.

The pecan's nutritional profile is another attribute that has yet to be exploited by the industry.

"The pecan is superior in taste to the almond or walnut," said George Ray McEachern, extension horticulturist at Texas A&M University, which has been in the forefront of pecan research. "Where the almond and walnut are hard in texture, the pecan is soft. The oil in pecans is fabulous at 98% unsaturated fat. It is low in cholesterol and is an extremely healthy energy food. And there is good marketing potential based on its quality, taste and health factors."

California is still a minor player in a pecan industry dominated by Georgia and Texas. But Winter cites federal estimates that indicate that this state's total harvest could rise to 11 million pounds by 1995, up from the present 3-million-pound level.

So, what looks like the right crop at the right time benefits from several factors that distinguish it from varieties grown elsewhere.

Possibly the most distinctive characteristic is the premium appearance and flavor, Blain said.

To illustrate the point, he randomly assembled a batch of pecans being processed at his plant recently. The nuts were remarkably uniform in color--all a light gold, with few blemishes evident. The California variety, being mechanically shelled and dried, also had a fresh, clean taste.

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