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Georgia Nut Growers Get a Shellacking

Pecans can be fickle anyway, but dry season, torrents of rain too late equal a tough harvest.

November 28, 2002|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

FORT VALLEY, Ga. — Even when it is good, the pecan is a fickle nut.

Its growing properties make it especially prone to swings in output -- a plentiful pecan crop one year often presages a lean one the next. Throw in a long growing season and the whims of nature -- too little rain, or too much -- and you have a nut that is tricky to manage long before it is time to bake it into a Thanksgiving pie.

Which explains the sour mood of Georgia's pecan farmers, who are enduring a slow harvest after getting smacked by an off year in production, then months of no rain when they needed it and buckets when they didn't. During the pre-Thanksgiving stretch that represents the peak of the pecan harvest and the holiday buying rush, some growers say their haul will be scarcely a third of last year's in a state that is the nation's leading pecan producer.

"Everybody's got the same story. Anyone who is solely in pecans really got their feelings hurt this year," said longtime grower Al Pearson, standing in a grove of towering 40-year-old pecan trees whose yield has been especially miserly. "There's just not enough volume -- at any price. It's just one we want to get behind us."

Pearson represents the third generation in his family to farm pecans here in central Georgia, an area better known as the heart of peach-growing country. Most of Georgia's pecan industry, which produces an average of 88 million pounds yearly, is centered in the southern portion of the state.

There are several reasons for this season's drastic downturn, besides the on-again, off-again growth cycle. The main factor is the farmer's usual bane. "It's the weather," said Darrell Sparks, a horticulture professor at the University of Georgia who studies pecans.

First, it was very dry. Amid four years of drought, the April-to-September growing season saw almost no rain -- a factor contributing to nuts that were smaller and less meaty than usual, farmers say. That came after a winter that didn't get cold enough for the trees to fully bud once spring arrived.

Then, just when it was time to harvest the nuts in October, the rains finally fell. And fell. Central Georgia received nearly 5 inches of rain in October, more than twice the usual amount. November brought further soaking -- more than 4 inches by early this week, well above normal.

The rains flooded some pecan orchards, turning sections into muddy ponds and preventing growers from maneuvering their tractors amid the trees. Pecans typically are shaken to the ground by machines that reach out with a hydraulic arm and a giant, vibrating claw. Once freed from the limbs, the pecans are swept into the middle of the rows by a different machine and scooped into trailers along with fallen leaves, branches and dirt. The pecans are then sorted from the debris and packed.

In some areas, high winds blew the pecans to the ground, where the fallen nuts began to sprout or decay in the rainy warmth, making them useless. Gathering the pecans became a messy enterprise as wet leaves and mud accompanied the nuts into the trailers. At Pearson's farm, the trailers had to be placed under blowers for hours to dry out the heap before the nuts could be cleaned and sorted.

"It's been very frustrating trying to get the stuff harvested. By the time it gets dry enough to harvest, it rains again," said Buddy Leger, a grower in Cordele who chairs the state's pecan commission.

He said farmers could have used the rain a few months earlier to supplement irrigation. "You're hard-pressed to say you'd wish it would quit raining after four years of drought," Leger said. "It's a double-edged sword."

The rains have remained at bay for more than a week, making it easier to gather what remains of the pecan yield. But it won't be enough. At Pearson's Big 6 Farm, the processing shed would normally be humming at top speed this week. Instead, workers can take leisurely lunch breaks and some groves may not get a second shaking, making for an abbreviated harvest.

Statewide, the harvest may amount to about 50 million pounds this year -- less than half of last year's yield of 110 million pounds. A 50% drop is not unusual following an abundant pecan crop, such as last year's. But some growers expect the drop to exceed even that decline. One of the state's largest growers, Chop Evans, said he will probably harvest about 2 million pounds this year, compared with nearly 6 million last year.

If there is a bright spot in the fall gloom, it is that prices paid to pecan farmers held up during the critical pre-Thanksgiving run-up, though a decline is expected as Christmas gift orders get filled. Retail-quality pecans have been fetching about $1.30 per pound, although that reportedly dropped recently. A stockpile of pecans from last year's crop should shield consumers from price jumps, Leger said.

At Pearson Farms, the family's roadside store, workers this week were roasting premium Elliot pecans, some of which were salted while others were sprinkled with a piquant mixture of garlic and Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces. Shelves brimmed with decorative tins and bags of pecans, though most are sold via catalog and, increasingly, the Internet. Those sales were expected to hold steady.

The family works about 2,000 acres of pecans and a smaller area of peaches. Pearson, 52, said he will take a loss on pecans this year. But he has been farming long enough to keep a sense of humor about the fluctuating fortunes of the tasty nut, which for the most part has been kind to the family over the years.

"I've said in the past that if I could change my peaches to pecans, I would," Pearson said. "This year, I'm glad I didn't."

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