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Pecans in California

by Joe Traynor

Growers of California’s three major nut crops, almonds, pistachios and walnuts are currently enjoying both high yields and excellent prices. California’s pecan industry, at about 5,000 acres, lags far behind the acreage of these three stalwarts. Pecan prices are currently very good — around $2.25 per in-shell pound, with premiums paid for high shell-out percentages.

The 2011 drought in Texas (and Mexico) cut heavily into pecan yields giving a major price spike –to above $3/lb. Although prices have dropped from their 2011 highs and the 2012 Texas crop is much better, prices remain strong, creating the current interest in pecans (2012 prices will come into better focus after harvest is completed in December).

Unlike almonds, pistachios and walnuts, pecans are grown in a number of different states (and Mexico) and the resultant fragmented marketing can lead to unstable prices. Prices for all nuts, however, rise and fall in tandem, and the current near-record prices for all nuts provide stability to pecan prices.

To some extent, pecans can ride on the coattails of the more extensive marketing efforts and promotions by California’s “Big 3” nut crops. Many feel that there is no reason why pecans can’t be just as profitable, if not more profitable, than almonds, pistachios or walnuts.

A major pitfall in pecan culture is alternate bearing. All tree crops are subject to alternate bearing (a heavy crop one year, followed by a light crop the next) but with pecans, esp. with some varieties, the penalties of alternate bearing are more severe: the heavy set in an on year results in poorly filled nuts that are difficult to sell. Once pecans get into an alternate bearing cycle they want to maintain that cycle. There are some indications that the alternate bearing habit of pecans can be mitigated (see later).

Besides alternate bearing, growers haven’t jumped into pecans because of their relatively late harvest – October through November. Walnut growers are used to dealing with rainy weather during their October harvest, which is probably why most pecan growers in California are also walnut growers. Unlike almonds and walnuts, pecans, especially varieties with a tightly sealed shell, hold nicely on the tree in case rains delay harvest. Brian Blain farms pecans and walnuts in the Visalia area and has harvested pecans as late as March with no damage to the nuts. There is an excellent Christmas market for pecans (and all nuts) and an excellent China market for the Chinese New Year (January) so a delayed harvest could hurt your bottom line.

Until about 10 years ago, aphids were enough of a pest to cause some pecan growers to get out of the game and to discourage other growers from getting in. The systemic insecticide, Temik (aldicarb) solved the aphid problem until the EPA banned the material. Growers now get good aphid control with Imidicloprid (Admire) and are looking into other chemicals after aphids become resistant (as they did with Temik). Before Temik, aphids would coat pecan leaves with honeydew which turned into sooty mold thereby reducing the ability of leaves to capture the sunlight essential for photosynthesis and to store the resulting carbohydrates necessary to set and mature a crop. Aphids alone could throw a tree into an alternate-bearing cycle.

Brian Blain is probably the largest pecan grower in California, farming 750 acres in the southern San Joaquin Valley. As one of the pioneer pecan growers in California, Brian learned pecan culture through the school of hard knocks. A steep learning curve, punctuated by bouts with aphids and alternate bearing came close to causing Brian to quit pecans. Brian persevered and if anyone can be called an expert in pecan culture in California it is probably Brian.

In July of 2012, I attended a pecan thinning demonstration near Chico. The meeting was sponsored by the California Pecan Growers Association and Brian, assisted by sons Barrett and Brody, presided over the demonstration. Designated trees were evaluated for crop load and a trunk shaker reduced the set of green nuts.

Brian has data to show that shaking half or more green pecans off over-loaded trees in July can not only give increased profits in the current year, but also the following year, by preventing trees from going into an off-year cycle. Almond growers would cringe at the prospect of knocking off half their crop in July since they want every single almond to remain on the trees until harvest. With pecans, it’s a different ball game as one must farm both for the current crop and next year’s crop.

Just prior to thinning his crop in July, Brian Blain evaluates the crop on each tree, and shakes trees individually based on the crop assessment for that tree; trees with a light crop are not shaken. A lot of work, but based on hard-earned experience, Brian feels it’s worth the effort. Steve Sibbett, former Tulare County farm advisor, is also based in Visalia and exchanges information with Brian. Steve simplifies crop-thinning evaluations by observing the degree to which limbs are bent down, a good indicator of the amount of shaking required. Steve also works with and exchanges information with pecan growers nationally.

Potential California pecan growers have been dissuaded from getting in the game because they have seen other pecan projects fail due mainly to aphids and alternate bearing. Aphid problems have been solved, current efforts to solve alternate-bearing problems are encouraging and the Wichita variety has proven to be a consistent producer. Brian Blain has averaged 2,500 to 3,000 lbs every year for the past six years (Wichita and 20% pollinizers combined) and his 3,000 lb crop in 2011 sold for $3/lb, making pecans more profitable than both almonds and walnuts.

Pecan orchards in Australia have averaged 5,000#/acre with minimal alternate bearing. Brian feels that Australia’s latitude (like Mexico’s) provides the extra sunlight that Pecans love. Like most tree crops, pecans do best on deep, well drained soils; they tolerate a wide variety of soil textures, from sandy to heavy. Steve Sibbett feels that pecans are a good choice for land that is subject to flooding (e.g., areas between levees in the Sacramento Valley). Pecans, native to the Mississippi River flood plain, are tolerant of standing water that would kill other trees. On any soil, good orchard management is required to get consistent 3,000# yields. Pecan trees require more water than other tree crops – up to 5 acre feet/year according to some; water stress during nut filling can give sub-standard nuts. Ample fertilizer is also important, esp. potassium during the critical nut-filling stage.

Choosing the proper varieties is a critical decision for pecans. In California, the most popular varieties are Wichita and Pawnee. Like walnuts, wind-pollinated pecans also require a pollinizer variety. Because Pawnee matures earlier than other varieties, Pawnee is a popular variety in the Sacramento Valley where fall rains are more likely to interfere with harvest (Wichita is often the pollinizer variety). Mike Harvey, a southwest based consultant, has extensive experience with pecans and manages projects for growers in California and Arizona (Mike feels that because Arizona pecans get more sunlight than in California they might be better suited there). Mike discourages planting Pawnees in the Southern San Joaquin Valley because Pawnee pecans can sprout inside the shell during a warm fall. Mike feels that Wichita is the variety of choice for the San Joaquin Valley. Wichita is a dependable producer and a better yielder than Pawnee with less susceptibility to alternate bearing (Wichita is not recommended in the humid southeast due to its susceptibility to the pecan scab fungus).

The Western Schley variety is commonly used as a pollinizer for Wichita. Mike likes the Navajo variety, both as a pollinizer for Wichita and as a 50-50 planting with Wichita since their similar nut characteristics and harvest dates allow them to be harvested together. Because it buds out early, Mike cautions against planting Navajo in areas subject to spring frosts and feels that due to its heavy-setting characteristic it will likely require more crop thinning than most varieties.

Planting distance is an important consideration for pecans. Pecan trees are huge, reaching 65 feet in height with a 65 foot wide span. Due to their intolerance of shade, some orchards are planted on 60 foot spacings (12 trees/acre) but the most popular spacing now is 30X30 feet (48 trees/acre). Some 30X30’ plantings were intended to eventually be thinned to 60X60’ but few are. Mike Harvey sees new, successful orchards in Arizona planted 40X20’ with rows running north-south. No matter what planting distance, some hedging and topping will be required to maximize sunlight.

Pecans are the only commercial tree nut that is native to the U.S., with native trees in the southern states, and as far north as Ohio. Native trees are harvested (but aren’t conventionally farmed) and in some years, native trees contribute significantly to the overall supply. Georgia is the largest producer of conventionally farmed acreage. New Mexico and Texas are big producers, with native trees contributing significantly to the Texas crop.

Current demand for pecans exceeds supply, and pecans are imported from Mexico to meet the demand here. The U.S. pecan crop totals around 300 million lbs annually (+ about 150 million lbs from Mexico) still a long way from the 2 billion lb crops that almond growers are getting and far less than current pistachio and walnut crops. The quality of California pecans – excellent size, color and uniformity – is considered by many to be superior to pecans from other areas. As with the other nut crops, pecan sales to China have increased dramatically in recent years, from virtually nothing in 2000, to 25% of the U.S. crop in 2009 (somewhat less, today). California’s entire nut industry is dependent on the economic health of China.

There is little information on pecan growing in California because current acreage doesn’t warrant research here. Some excellent information is available from the other pecan states, although not all of it applies to California. A number of pests and diseases present significant problems in other pecan areas but are not a problem here. Pecan growers here get much of their information from other growers, both in California and from other western states. In this regard, Brian Blain and others have generously shared their collective experiences. During the 2012 Chico meeting, Brian served as a one-man Extension Service.

Pecan culture in California has the potential to be very profitable. Mike Harvey feels that Wichita can average 3,000# or more of quality nuts over a period of years. With proper variety selection and good management, pecans could well become more profitable than California’s other three nut crops — Brian Blain’s recent crops are proof. A lot of homework, though, is needed before jumping into pecans. Attending the annual meetings of the California Pecan Growers Association and the Western Pecan Growers Association is a good start. And remember that nurseries need two-year notice + a down payment to grow a significant order of trees.

The long life span of pecan trees makes them especially attractive to long-term thinkers. Here’s Mike Harvey: “A pecan tree’s lifespan can exceed 100 years, whereas walnuts last approximately 35 years and almonds 20 years. Pecans are an excellent use of land because the crop is a one-time investment. For the initial $8,000 to $10,000 developmental costs, plus today’s land prices, pecans can be planted for the benefit of generations to come.” Plantings of almonds and pistachios in California will total around 60,000 acres for each crop from 2010 through 2012. Some question whether markets will hold up under the coming onslaught of nuts, but those who sell nuts assure growers that there will be no problems. In contrast, new Pecan acreage over the same time 3 year time span is estimated at 600 acres.

Growing pecans in California has the potential to be very profitable. Pecan growers in other states cast a wary eye on California and wonder when this sleeping giant will awaken. To date, there are no signs.

Acknowledgements: Input from Brian Blain, Mike Harvey and Steve Sibbett made this article possible and their numerous valuable suggestions after reviewing early drafts are greatly appreciated.

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This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of Pacific Nut Producer