This year’s pecan season is winding down and the crop has been a small one thanks to weather and the growing cycle. “A lot of factors were involved,” said Max Draughn, president of the Mississippi Pecan Growers Association. “We had a cold spring, we had a large crop last year and the wet weather this year made disease pressures higher than normal. Fungus is much worse in a wet year than a dry year.”
The yard tree crop was even worse, he said. “They made a horrible crop this year, very thin. There are 14 states in the Pecan Belt in the Southeast and it happened pretty much all the way across. Everybody’s short this year.”
Draughn said last year’s warm spring produced the largest crop in a decade in his older orchards. “This year’s crop is only 60 percent of what we have in a normal year,” he said.
Older trees have genetically programmed to alternate good crop years with off years, he said, giving them a rest after expending so much energy producing large crops. Younger trees 10 years or less haven’t gotten into that pattern yet, “so they had a good crop.”
To avoid huge crops and help keep the crops level year after year, farmers will lend a helping hand if they see their trees producing too many pecans. “We go in late July or early August and shake some nuts off the trees when the nuts are small. Like apples, they have to be thinned.”
The season starts in late September or early October but this year’s unusually cool spring delayed the trees budding out by three weeks, he said. “We usually finish harvesting 10 days or two weeks before Christmas.”
Pecans are for the most part a healthy crop, subject only to scab among tree diseases and aphids and stink bugs among insect enemies. The bigger problem for farmers or homeowners is posed by squirrels and crows. “The rule of thumb is a typical squirrel will eat a pound of pecans and hide a pound per day,” he said. “When the first trees drop nuts, crows will descend on them every year.”
In 2002 Draughn bought a farm and remnants of an old orchard in soil-rich Raymond that’s now 140 years old. Every year since 2004 he’s planted new acreage with improved tree varieties and now he’s up to 300 acres, making his one of the larger pecan orchards in the state. In 2006 he bought Bass Pecan Co.’s retail outlet and tree nursery and later opened two outlets of his own.
Draughn knows the ins and outs of his industry and the pecan itself, including its history in the state. “The Mississippi Coast is the birthplace of the U.S. pecan industry. A lot of the pecans developed in nurseries from Jackson County up to Lumberton supplied the pecan industry with trees from the 1880s through the 1950s. This was the hotbed of pecan innovation.”
Among the varieties that came out of Jackson County, he said, are today’s favorites Desirable and Stuart.
Bass was big part of that innovation starting back in the 1920s and it was the largest nursery in world for about 75 years. “We’re in the top three or four container grown pecan nurseries in the world now,” he said.
In the mid 1960s Mississippi produced in excess of 30 million pounds of pecans a year. “Last year was 5 million and this year will be 2 million to 2.5 million pounds. Camille (in 1969) basically destroyed the pecan industry in South Mississippi,” he said. The top producing states are Texas and Georgia.
Draughn said demand is “super high” because of China’s taste for pecans. “About one third of the U.S. crop is being exported to China,” he said. “The Chinese are coming in buying the highest quality nuts and paying premium prices. That puts pressure on the domestic market especially in a short year like this.”
Draughn doesn’t export his products. “We completely consume all the nuts we grow plus we buy other nuts mostly in Mississippi through Bass. We sell more than we can produce.”
The large or mammoth halves sell for $12.95 a pound retail. It takes 251 or fewer halves to make a pound of shelled pecans. His wholesale price for pecans in the shell is $3 to $3.50 a pound.
Studies showing the health benefits of eating nuts should help pecan growers but there is a downside to the popularity.
“We’re finally seeing the domestic consumption of all nuts on the upswing and we’re seeing pecans put into a lot more products like cereal,” Draughn said.
“But it could hurt if the price goes so high you lose consumption. We’ll sell more nuts long term if we can get the price down.”