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SHELL SHOCKERS: Alabama Pecan Industry Poised For Comeback

SHELL SHOCKERS: Alabama Pecan Industry Poised For Comeback
November 30, 2007 |

They go by names like Gafford, Excel, Amling and McMillan, and they could very well be just the varieties needed to usher back the heydays of Alabama’s once-burgeoning pecan industry.Some can make a crop with little or no care. Others can resist the dreaded scab fungus.Still others can be harvested earlier with greater kernel-to-shell ratio.”There are going to be some changes in variety recommendations,” declares Dr. Ray Goff, the Auburn University horticulturist who is considered one of the nation’s foremost authorities on all things pecan. “There are a lot of really good ones coming along.”Those are just a few of the varieties that are part of the on-going trials that have been under way for years at the Gulf Coast Research & Extension Center in Fairhope, not far from where Alabama’s pecan industry first got its start more than a century ago.”I think the day is going to come when we’ll look back and say, ‘I can’t believe we grew pecans this late in the year,'” says Monte Nesbitt, the research horticulturist at the GCREC. “They’re going to push (the pecan harvest) back into the months of September and August.””Keep on and you’ll have pecans on the Fourth of July,” joked Ken Buck, who operates a 65-acre orchard in Irvington and is a past president of the Alabama Pecan Growers Association.Buck says the recent advances in disease-resistant and early harvest varieties, improved production methods and other factors add up to “a golden opportunity for pecan growers.” However, he warns, it won’t happen unless the state’s pecan industry gets some much-needed help — and fast. “At one time, Alabama produced 60 million pounds of pecans in a year,” says Buck. “Nowadays, if we have 10 or 12 million pounds, we think that’s a good year.”Buck says a shift in priorities over the past dozen years has left pecan producers in a lurch with a lack of funding for research, promotion and staffing. He notes that an Extension staff that once included a plant pathologist, entomologist and weed scientist has now dwindled to a single fulltime pecan horticulturist in Goff, while Nesbitt must divide his time between pecan and fruit growers.”If Dr. Goff decided to retire or got sick or whatever, Alabama’s pecan business would be non-existent,” said Buck. “Really, it’s sort of spooky.”Yet, Buck remains hopeful that Auburn University President Jay Gogue, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from AU in horticulture, will place a renewed emphasis on the industry with additional staffing.Goff, meanwhile, says declines in production aren’t really that unusual. Hurricanes, scab, aging and overcrowded orchards and the natural, on-off production cycle of pecans have all contributed to decreasing yields over the past several years.Even so, Goff believes that the strides made over the past few years provide a window of opportunity for the industry.”Everybody gets excited about new things like chestnuts or Satsumas, and there is potential there,” he said. “But we have an established industry in pecans that hasn’t gone away and still has potential. If we’d put as much effort into bettering the pecan industry as we have developing the chestnut industry, we’ll get a lot more dollars quicker out of pecans than we do with many of these other crops.”Nesbitt said researching new cultivars that can be harvested earlier is particularly promising because it can change the dynamics of the market.”Retailers need to be able to have their catalogs out sooner rather than later to be competitive,” he said. “It’s a really difficult thing to know how the market’s going to shape up and how to price your product because the pecans don’t come to market until it’s time for the holiday gift catalog to be in the customers’ hands.”For the past century or so, most people have associated pecans with Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. That’s not a bad thing, says Nesbitt, but it limits availability, hampers marketing and causes consumers to think of pecans only a couple of times a year.Both Goff and Buck cited a study by Loma Linda University that found pecans — once thought to be high in fats and oils — to be actually high in the “good fats” and “heart healthy” because of anti-oxidants. Furthermore, the study showed pecans to be the healthiest of all nuts. “That’s causing people to change their view of pecans from an indulgent kind of unhealthy food to a diet staple that’s healthy for you,” said Goff. “And that promotion effort has made a difference in the consumption of pecans.”That’s one reason Goff forecast U.S. pecan production to be at 321.7 million pounds this year — 14.8 percent higher than the 2005 crop year. Of that, Alabama was expected to provide 11 million pounds.”You don’t have to worry about a market,” says Goff. “You put ’em in a sack and there’s somebody who’ll buy them. It may not be at the price you want, but you will not lose any pecans for failure to market. There aren’t very many horticultural crops that you can throw in a sack, set it in your barn, and then come back a month later and sell it. Try that with tomatoes and peaches!”If Alabama’s pecan growers get the support Buck says they need, he says production will climb higher and higher. “It’s time to be more optimistic,” Buck says.”There is really some exciting stuff going on,” Goff declares. “We’ve been testing varieties at Auburn ever since I got there 25 years ago, and during the time prior to that as well. We made some progress, and we took some missteps. But we learned from that and we’ve refocused on disease-resistant varieties and early harvest varieties. We have our niche. Some of the earliest pecans in the country come from south Alabama, and we can expand on that with some of these newer varieties and emphasize that advantage even more.”Buck says the newer varieties aren’t a luxury — they’re a necessity if a pecan grower expects to remain in business.”New varieties will dictate that, sooner or later, you modernize your orchard and try something different,” he said. “This is not your father’s pecan orchard anymore. It’s a new day.” nFor more information, visit

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