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Money does grow on trees

It may be the most widely awaited fall product, even more popular than the November arrival of Beaujolais nouveau wine from France.

Pecan season is here and, despite dire predictions of crop-destroying drought, the nuts are actually in decent supply for consumers who depend on them to make Thanksgiving and other holiday dishes and treats complete.

However, Mississippi pickers, buyers and growers are facing market factors that range from weather to fuel costs and beyond.

Frank Gant recently opened a small, corner produce shop in Cleveland. One of his attempts to wring a profit from it has been to begin buying pecans, currently paying 30¢ a pound to the occasional picker with a bag in his hands.

“We’re getting plenty of pecans,” Gant reports. “If they shell out to 41% (of nut) or better, then we get 40¢ per pound.” He sells most of what he buys to a large-scale buyer in Indianola, whose truck drivers regularly pick them up.

Gant says the drivers extract some pecans from the sacks and sample them for quality. So far, he reports, the quality has been limited. Gant blames drought for that. “The numbers and quality are down. It would have been better without drought.”

Local consumers may also buy from Gant, paying $2 per pound for their pecans.

Across town, Frank Michael enjoys a steady stream of sellers at Michael Pecan Co., which his late father, Bevo Michael, founded in the late 1950s. “I do this every year because my dad did it.”

Michael personally delivers his pecans to buyers in Alabama, Georgia and Texas. A pecan-raising friend reported paying a trucking firm $2,280 to deliver a truckload of pecans to a Texas buyer. That was enough to convince Michael he is right in shipping his own.

“Pecans have not risen in price,” Michael explains. “I was paying the same price for them when I was 15, and I’m 51 now.”

Bill Duke buys some pecans at his West Point headquarters of T.A. Duke Pecan Co., named for his grandfather, who started the business in the late 1930s. Drawing from a three-state market area — Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee — Duke says he sees “a lot of variety” in what folks are bringing in.

“The local quality is more a commercial grade,” Duke reports, making those nuts undesirable for gift baskets and other uses that demand a nearly perfect nut. He’s paying 40¢ to 50¢ per pound. “It’s still early in the season to predict how it will be.”

Randolph Smith already has a pretty good idea how his season will be. “It’s a big crop.” The co-owner of 500-acre Smith Pecan Inc. in Raymond says 14 inches of rain in July likely saved his crop, but increased by 15% his costs for fungicide and insecticide.

Smith’s orchard of 7,000 trees in 50 varieties — “We’ve got too many varieties,” he laments — range in age from seedlings to 102 years old. Those venerable trees were planted by his grandfather Hilton Smith when he founded the enterprise in 1904.

Today, Smith sells retail to mainly Jackson-area customers from a shop on the 500-acre orchard. But he ships the vast majority of his crop to a buyer in Monroe, La. Harvesting from early September to mid-February, Smith expects to reach what is being called a 10-year peak in the nation’s pecan industry.

“We’ve been short the last three years, with 200,000 pounds each year,” he says, explaining that the usual harvest is 350,000 pounds.

“We should hit that this time.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer C. Richard Cotton at rcotton4@earthlink.com .


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