Summertime drought hurt Georgia's pecan crop, and now harvest is behind schedule. But there is one big bright spot: pecan prices are currently the highest they have ever been, according to a University of Georgia pecan specialist.
"I'm hesitant to use the word 'outlandish' to describe the prices, but they are certainly the highest in history," said Lenny Wells, a pecan horticulturist with UGA Cooperative Extension.
Prices for most varieties are $1 to $1.50 per pound higher than they normal for a crop like this year's. The Stuart variety accounts for roughly half of Georgia's crop. Stuarts sell now for $2.30 per pound. Such a nut would typically sell for only $1 to $1.25 per pound, Wells said.
Weather delays harvest
Pecan trees are alternate bearing, meaning they produce a heavy crop only every other year. This year is an "off" year. But it was on its way to being a very good off year, though, he said.
In the summer, the crop was expected to reach 80 million pounds, twice the production of the state's worst off year.
"We were thinking a few months ago it would be the best off year in years," Wells said. "But the drought in August and September, a critical time for water need, reduced the crop significantly leaving us with fewer nuts and lower quality."
In many locations, the Stuart variety is refusing to release from the shuck in trees, something likely caused by the dry conditions, he said, but the reason is still a bit of a mystery. A cold winter matched with a cool spring has pushed overall harvest behind by at least three weeks.
Market demand increases
Demand for pecans has increased in recent years, driven by China's newfound taste for the nut. China purchased 88 million pounds of pecans last year, equal to all of Georgia's production last year. With 140,000 acres, Georgia is the No. 1 pecan producing state in the country. The U.S. produced 290 million pounds last year.
"China is expected to purchase this year at least as much as they purchased last year," Wells said. "Considering this and the reduction in the crop, I don't expect prices to decrease much as harvest continues."
Georgia's pecan harvest typically ends near Christmas.
With farm-level prices high, U.S. consumers can expect to pay more for pecans, said Wojciech Florkowski, an economist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, but not too much more than they have historically because the American consumer has many tree nuts to choose from and all are in plentiful supply.
"This keeps a lid on how high pecan prices can go," Florkowski said. "So, the retail prices may go up a bit, but retailers tend to price substitutes at similar price levels, so pecans cannot be much more expensive than almonds, walnuts or imported cashews."