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Pecan farmers see growth opportunities

Issue Date: November 11, 2020
By Ching Lee
California pecan harvest is underway in the northern Sacramento Valley, including at this orchard in Williams. Pecan growers in the San Joaquin Valley, where later-maturing varieties are grown, expect to begin their harvest this week.
Photo/Fred Greaves

Despite being a relatively small crop in California for years, farmers and marketers say pecans remain a viable option for growers looking for an alternative nut crop in a state dominated by almonds, walnuts and pistachios.

As a grower in Tulare County, Mark Hendrixson, who serves as president of the California Pecan Growers Association, said he believes "the future for pecans is a bright one." Even with the range of crop options available to California farmers, he said he sees "opportunity for significantly more (pecan) acreage" because of the state's growing conditions and increasing market prospects for the nut.

"I think there's definitely room for much more acreage to be planted in California in the coming years," he said.

Total California pecan acreage stands at more than 5,000, according to association estimates, with about 100 to 200 new acres planted each year. Others in the business say acreage is probably closer to the 3,500 reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2018; the department has since discontinued its reporting of California pecan acreage.

Pecans are the last nuts in the state to be harvested, with harvest well underway in the northern Sacramento Valley, where most of the earlier-maturing Pawnee variety is grown. Harvest in the San Joaquin Valley is expected to start this week, Hendrixson said.

Blake Houston, owner of HNH Nut Co. in Visalia, the only pecan processor in the state, said he doesn't expect California farmers to devote hundreds of thousands of acres to pecans as they have the state's three most popular nut crops. But with people eating more plant proteins, he said his overall outlook for pecans remains "very positive," and he encourages farmers to plant them.

"Pecans are not necessarily new to California, but they're becoming more attractive to the commercial farmer," Houston said. "We are seeing people's interest in pecans, even though there is some doubt in the markets."

Domestic sales account for about half his business, with much of those in hospitality, food service and confectionary markets. But Houston described those markets as being on "life support right now" due to impacts from the pandemic. With bakeries, hotels and restaurants not making or buying as many pastries and other desserts, "domestics are tough," he said, and holiday sales may also dip this year.

Hendrixson noted pecans have traditionally been a holiday food, with much of U.S. production going to food products and food service. The ongoing trade dispute with China has also disrupted a key export market, he said, with tariffs remaining at 54%.

Grower prices this year started "very low," Hendrixson added, with little movement in the market, as "everybody's sitting back."

Farmers and others in the business expressed optimism that marketing and promotional work by the American Pecan Council would improve market prospects for pecans as a snacking nut and not just as an ingredient for baking and confections.

Though such marketing efforts have been "impressive," Tehama County grower Garry Nance said, they have so far not translated to higher prices for farmers—though he acknowledged it takes time to develop new markets.

Even with softer markets this year, Nance, who also runs one of three pecan drying and hulling facilities in the state, noted current returns for pecans remain nearly three times per pound what walnuts are earning. The bigger problem for farmers, he said, has been producing enough yield to stay profitable. Pecans require more water than the other three top nut crops, he said, and they generally take longer to come into production. They also do not respond well to production practices suited for almonds and walnuts.

"They're not forgiving at all, especially on the Pawnee," he said, which "absolutely cannot be allowed to overgrow and shade the inside of the tree. It is a very high-maintenance planting … and a high investment."

Because pecan trees can tolerate lower-grade, heavier soils and areas with high water tables, Nance said they represent an option for farmers with ground not suitable for other tree crops and who are looking for a long-term investment, because well-maintained pecan trees can produce for 60 to 100 years.

"They are a great crop for anybody that is patient enough to … put the effort into trying to get the yields that you need in order to make a profit," he said. "But you can't just plant them and walk away and expect to get much out of them."

Colusa County grower Theresa Jeffreys Bright, who planted her first trees in 2006, said she got the idea for growing pecans after reading an article in Ag Alert® that "talked about planting pecans even in marginal rice land."

"My mindset as to why I got into pecans: I thought almonds were overplanted then," she said. "If you can be on the leading edge of a trend, you have the ability to make a lot more money than if you're on the trailing end."

Most of her nuts are marketed wholesale, but Jeffreys Bright said she's been expanding direct sales, including selling to local candy makers. Sales to candy makers now account for half of her retail business, though they represent 1% to 2% of her total production. She said she's also starting to increase online sales and has continued to sell at farmers markets and to local restaurants.

With only one processor in the state, Jeffreys Bright said she would like to see formation of a grower cooperative shelling operation, which she said would "be a real boon to the industry."

As a new grower in Glenn County whose trees are about 5 years old and just coming into production, Will Bernstein said he hopes to follow a similar marketing strategy as Jeffreys Bright, including selling to candy shops.

With few pest problems for California pecans, he said if he could go organic, he could sell his nuts to an organic bakery in Chico that has already expressed interest in buying his pecans.

Bernstein said he planted pecans because he sought a crop that would provide the highest return from his 7 acres. With almonds and walnuts already widely grown, he said he considered pecans a better option, particularly because of the tree's long lifespan, which means he wouldn't need to replant them the way he would almond trees.

"You've got trees that are established and your kids—if you keep the place—can have some income off it," Bernstein said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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