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Pecan growers enjoy another 'nutty' year

It has been good times of late for Mississippi’s pecan producers. And, the optimism just keeps growing.

Boosted by increased demand, tight supply and corresponding high market prices while dodging some of the weather-related losses many of the state’s other agriculture commodities have suffered over the last few years, 2011 is shaping up to be perhaps the best yet for the state’s pecan farmers.

“Our crop is looking great,” said Max Draughn, owner of Bass Pecans in Raymond. “We’ll probably harvest about 100,000 pounds of pecans this year. We’re looking really good.”

This year’s harvest has just gotten underway, but Dr. David Ingram, plant pathologist with the Mississippi State University Central Research and Extension Center in Raymond, said he is expecting a solid year.

“Quantity-wise, we are looking great, and so far, the quality is shaping up, but it is still too soon to tell for sure,” Ingram said in a statement.

Optimism was not as high earlier in the year. The extended summer drought had growers concerned that they could see significant losses and drop in yields.

But, early September rains from Tropical Storm Lee came just when maturing nuts needed the moisture. That one event probably saved pecan growers’ year.

That has been a recurring theme over the last few growing seasons. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina heavily impacted the state’s industry with some producers suffering losses of up to 80 percent. The outlook for 2006 was poor, and a summer drought that year bred more pessimism.

However, late, timely rains boosted yields to the state’s annual average of 1.5 million pounds, and prices were solid due to the lack of supply post-Katrina.

Another summer drought and continued recovery from Katrina put 2007 in doubt, only to see a bumper crop of approximately three million pounds harvested.

A spring freeze, yet another drought and a fall hurricane reduced yields by 25 percent in 2008, but 2009 saw growers harvesting a crop of approximately three million pounds, double the state annual average.

While pecan growers were dodging the weather, they watched as demand and market prices began to rise. The U.S. pecan industry peaked in the 1960s as domestic demand flattened. Orchards were abandoned or taken out of production.

But, overseas demand has soared in recent years led by sales to China. Last year, China imported roughly 90 million pounds of U.S. pecans – approximately 20 percent of the 500 million pounds harvested. Other countries with emerging markets and middle classes such as India and Pakistan have also been strong customers and are buoying demand.

While demand has risen, so have prices. This year’s prices are expected to be even better as the drought heavily impacted states such as Texas that are big pecan-producing areas. Pecan supplies are tight.

“(The historic drought) has likely reduced the productivity of the pecan trees and lowered total supply,” said John Michael Riley, agricultural economist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “Price, as a result, has improved due to limited available product.”

Last year’s pecan production was 2.1 million pounds. At $1.48 per pound, Riley pegged the 2010 crop value at slightly more than $3 million.

Perry Jenkins, owner of Delta Gold, LLC, in Coahoma County, said in a statement, “Prices are going to be high again this year. The market for pecans in China is exploding right now. There is a high demand, and many of the shellers do not have a large supply in storage ready to go out, so prices are really moving forward.”

Draughn said growers are now selling their crop before the growing season even begins. Due to the high demand overseas, Draughn said many growers, including his operation, have contracts in hand and can, thus, manage their operations more efficiently and effectively.

The drought not only boosted prices, it helped the state’s growers cut costs. The dry weather contributed to less disease, particularly pecan scab, which annually causes more economic damage in the U.S. pecan industry than any other.

“Pecan scab becomes a serious problem when there is a lot of rain early in the year,” Ingram said. “Because of rain, growers generally have to apply fungicides about eight times a year. This year, fewer than the usual number of sprays were made as a result of the drought, which saved growers money.

“It is just a good time to be a pecan grower.”

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