By Jill Nolin, CNHI State Reporter
ATLANTA – The country’s top pecan producing state will likely end up with about half of its prized crop after Hurricane Michael ripped through southwest Georgia orchards last week. Still, nut lovers aren’t likely to feel the effects this holiday season.
That’s largely because global affairs are keeping the price of that pecan pie in check, in spite of the hit to the nation’s pecan supply. China’s retaliatory tariff – at a stiff 47 percent on U.S. pecans – has left the classic Southern nut without one of its biggest buyers.
“There’s plenty of pecans,” said Ken Apperson, who owns a pecan operation in Moultrie, located in southwest Georgia. “There ain’t no shortage of pecans this year. There’s just a shortage of people who want to buy them.”
Georgia pecan growers were expecting a bumper crop this year, with the state’s vast number of trees poised to produce a whopping 110 million pounds of the nut.
Now, farmers are looking at harvesting about 55 million pounds. It’s bad enough to make Hurricane Irma, which wiped out about 30 percent of the state’s pecans last year, look mild by comparison.
The monstrous storm crossed the state line as a Category 3 hurricane and maintained hurricane-force winds as it tore through inland Georgia, upturning century-old pecan trees with ease.
“A lot of these orchards have been in families and a lot of these trees that are down were planted by granddad and great granddad and daddy, and they’re gone,” said Brent Brinkley, who says he lost about 3,000 trees at his farm, Weybrenee Farms, in Mitchell County.
“That’s where we’re different from the lost cotton crop. Next year, you just plant cotton again. This is a disaster – it is a disaster for the pecan industry,” Brinkley said.
Hurricane Michael was particularly brutal to older trees – some that have been around for eight decades or longer – that could produce more than 200 pounds of pecans each season.
And in a cruel twist, many of the mature nuts that are strewn around orchards are not likely to withstand the heavy equipment needed to clear away the massive trees to finish collecting the pecans.
The harvest had only just begun on pecans when the hurricane hit. Many premature nuts were also flung from the trees, rendering them worthless.
Brinkley, who is the president of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association, said it will take a generation to restore the loss of older trees. It will take several years just to see replacement trees become productive in any significant way. That may keep some farmers from even trying to replant pecan trees.
In the hard-hit southwest corner of the state, an overwhelming number of pecan trees are down. The most significant blow, though, may be in the Albany area, the heart of the state’s pecan industry, where the storm smashed about one third of the trees.
The latest tally put the economic loss from the storm at about $560 million just for pecans, according to the state Department of Agriculture. That includes $100 million in lost crops, $260 million in destroyed trees and $200 million in future income.
Still, the blow to Georgia’s pecan crop is not likely to push up prices for the beloved holiday treats this year. Even if so-called “gift pack” pecan prices increase, as some say they expect, it is not likely to be noticeable.
Lenny Wells, a pecan specialist with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, said the ongoing trade war with China is a big reason for that.
“Normally, if your supply has been cut in half, you would expect the price to improve some,” Wells said, referring to what growers earn. “But I’m being told by some buyers that that’s not going to be the case for a lot of the crop.”
Other countries, notably Mexico, have also become major pecan producers, ensuring there will be plenty of nuts available in the global market.
Brinkley, the Mitchell County farmer, said he was selling his Pawnee pecan – a popular nut used for gift items – for $3.43 per pound last year. Now, he’s only making $2.60 – about an 80-cent drop. That, he said, is a direct result of the Chinese tariff.
But in spite of the pain, Brinkley said pecan growers still support President Donald Trump’s attempts at leveling the playing field with America’s trading partners. Pecan growers may receive some federal assistance as a result of their losses.
“We’re just hopeful we can get this thing resolved, at least by next season,” he said. “We don’t mind taking a hit now if it’s going to be better in the future, but I think we all still believe that it’s in the right direction.”
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.