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(originally published November 2017)

Pecans are the only native nut crop in North America. California pecans, compared to other nut crops like almonds, pistachios, and walnuts are a minor crop, but pecan acreage is making slow, continual growth.

Wet Feet

Karlene Hanf, an orchard specialist with Linwood Nursery in La Grange, California, said they have seen an increase in pecan plantings in California.

     “In 2019, I’ll have more pecans going in the ground than I have historically. Every year it grows a little bit. Is it a huge volume? No,” Hanf said, but growers are learning that pecans do better near rivers or areas with a high water table.

During the drought many growers planted walnuts or almonds near rivers or where there was a high water table, and this year they found out that was not a good idea, Hanf said.

     Richard Heerema, pecan specialist at the University of New Mexico, agreed. “You go through a few years of drought and everybody starts planting almonds and walnuts in low lying areas, and then you go through a year like California had last year, and that’ll change opinions pretty quickly.”

Pecan trees did really, really well this past winter, even when they were in standing water, Hanf said. 

Pecans are more tolerant than some of the other tree nuts, Heerema said, but it’s not limitless either. They can only handle so much water.

Hanf did know one grower who had some issues. His pecan trees were under water while they were dormant and came through that, but they were flooded a second time after they had fully leafed out, and the grower lost a lot of trees, she said.

Pecan Acreage

Growers like Ben King, CEO of Pacific Gold Agriculture with pecan orchards in the Sacramento Valley and the Central Valley, feels there will be a significant increase in acreage in next 10-15 years. 

     Looking at that bottom line—the likely future in regards to the political, social, environmental, and global economic climate—how will pecans fit into that? King asked.

     “If you look at that, you can say almonds have probably the brightest of futures from the global economic point of view in that they’re well accepted, their market is expanding, people want California almonds, and California has the most productive Mediterranean climate in the world,” King said, plus there are limited areas to grow almonds outside of California.

     “But then it’s a question of water resources and environmental restrictions, and the San Joaquin Valley is really going to determine almond acreage in the future. I think the water budget of California will be balanced on the back of California almond prices. As long as prices are low and the cost of water is higher, people won’t replant almonds. They’ll just sell their water,” King said.

     “So almonds, I think, are a good crop, but you have to have the water resources to do that,” King said.

     Walnuts are very, very productive, but there is a lot of global production, King said. 

“I think the future supply of walnuts is problematic because you can grow walnuts in a lot of places, and you’re competing against the world for that, and it’s very export dependent,” King said.

     “You really are banking on a high enough walnut price to support that decision, and it probably makes sense if it’s really productive land,” King said.

     “I don’t know enough about the pistachio market to comment on it, but when it comes to pecans, I think it really is a good alternative to replanting walnuts, especially on ground that has wet feet,” King said. 

Coming into Production

Pecans haven’t been as attractive to growers compared to almonds or walnuts because they take much longer to come into production, Hanf said.

Depending upon the variety, it could be fifth leaf or go all the way to the eighth leaf before pecan trees come into production.

     There are pecan orchards in Georgia that are almost 200 years old, so once a pecan orchard is established, it should be there for the long haul, Hanf said.

     Pecan growers will be replacing their irrigation systems before they ever replace their trees—barring variety changes or a catastrophic event, Hanf said.  

This makes it critical to plant the right variety and have the correct spacing, Hanf said.

Very little research has been done on pecans in California, compared to other states like Texas, New Mexico, and Georgia, Hanf said.

While the research done in these other states is valuable, it may not apply to California pecans, Hanf said.

“We’re just way behind where almonds and walnuts are on their research because really we haven’t done any,” Hanf said.

Harvest  

     Pecans do have a later harvest—after walnuts.

“I have guys that do multiple crops like they may have olives, they may have almonds, they may have walnuts—pecans extend their season,” Hanf said, adding by the time they are done with walnuts, they’re tired and they don’t want to harvest another crop. 

But this year, some growers lost 30 to 40 percent of their 10 year-old walnut trees because of flooding, or because they sat in three feet of water, Hanf said. They can’t afford to do that again, so extending their season may not be the worst thing, she added.

Marketing Order

     Now that there’s an established marketing order, we’re starting to see the positive influence that’s going to have on the pecan industry, Hanf said.

     Before growers plant pecans, they want to see stable pricing, Hanf continued. 

Hanf attributes the marketing order to part of the reason for the acreage increase in California, and it shows growers that a profitable price can be maintained year in and year out.   

“It’s hard for growers that have seen that fluctuation in price to plan. How do you make a budget when it jumps that far around, but we’re starting to get more stabilized,” Hanf said. 

Heerema agreed the federal marketing order is a good thing for the pecan industry, and it puts pecans in line with other nut industries. 

It took pecans longer to get their marketing order in place because pecans are grown across the southern half of the United States as well as the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, Heerema said.

“That’s made it much more difficult for this industry to come together and work together in marketing,” Heerema said, but with the marketing order in place it’s very encouraging for the industry.

Hanf also attributes the stabilization to the green crop shaking in July and hedging that California growers are doing that is helping to reduce issue with alternate bearing. 

    

    

Varieties

     The main pecan varieties in California are:

  • Pawnee
  • Western Schley
  • Wichita

     Pawnees are a great nut, King said, but he would like to bring in some earlier varieties to hit the earlier markets.

The problem with planting new varieties is it takes a long time to know if they really work, King said. 

     “But we need to have an early, big variety, and Pawnee is our best case right now,” King said.

Heerema agreed that newer varieties that hit an earlier market would be beneficial for California growers for several reasons.

     First, growers would have more marketing flexibility with earlier varieties, Heerema said.

“This has been one of the main focuses of the USDA/ARS (United States Department of Agriculture/Agricultural Research Service) pecan breeding program for a number of years,” Heerema said, adding it has resulted in the release of the very popular Pawnee variety.

The Pawnee variety will ripen at the end of September, early October in New Mexico, and in harvest October. The more traditional varieties in New Mexico, in comparison, are typically harvested from late November into January, Heerema said.

     The problem with the late harvesting varieties is that they are very close to the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season, so from a marketing aspect, it misses those markets, Heerema said.

     With these early ripening varieties growers can hit holiday season markets, and the New Year market in China more easily, Heerema said.

     “So that’s one aspect with the early ripening varieties,” Heerema said.

The other aspect is weather. With California’s Mediterranean climate it can be dry from summer into early fall, Heerema said.

“But once you get into the November timeframe, that’s when your odds of rainfall, especially in the northern part of the state, really start going up,” Heerema said.

     “When you’re harvesting at that time of the year, you’re really running a risk that the nuts are going to have to stay in the orchard for a very, very long period of time,” Heerema said, adding it could be difficult to get equipment in until spring to harvest.

“That’s obviously not a desirable thing to just let it sit out there that long for so many months,” Heerema said.

     “A third aspect of this is that with early ripening varieties, it grants the farmer a little bit of freedom on harvest timing,” Heerema said.

“It may allow the farmer to spread out his or her harvest infrastructure,” Heerema said, whether it be the actual harvest equipment like the shakers and pickup machines or dryers.

     There are actually some varieties that have been tested in Texas that ripen ahead of Pawnee, Heerema said, but most don’t ripen consistently ahead of Pawnee.

     “Pawnee does pretty good though. I mean when you’re talking October harvest date. That does a pretty good job,” Heerema said.

But if California growers could get an earlier variety than Pawnee that allows them to hit some of those earlier markets, it would be beneficial, Heerema said.

    

    

New Plantings 

     King sees pecans as a good in the Sacramento Valley on soils with wet feet, or even moderate soils with wet feet.

Because pecans can take the water, King also sees potential for pecans in the San Joaquin Valley for recharge in areas within irrigation districts, and in areas with late flows that come from the snow melt.

     King’s two-year-old orchard in Colusa County was under water from the middle of March all the way to July 25th, and while he lost some trees, most of them are still alive.

King also had five-year-old trees right next to these trees, and they were under water until July 4th, but they are doing well and have nuts on them, he said. 

“Pecans have the ability to deal with standing water and are ideal for recharge,” King said.

     King sees pecans as a viable option to replanting walnuts, especially in areas with flooding problems.

“Pecans are very adaptable,” King continued, and depending on how deep those soils are, they could grow in soils that aren’t ideal for other nut crops.

     King sees strong potential for pecans in rice ground, and he’s looking at acreage right now out of Maxwell that is on rice ground, he said.

 

Infrastructure

     Part of the future of pecans is building and expanding the infrastructure, King said.

     “I’m in the process of putting in a dryer.  It’s going to happen this year or next year,” King said, and it will be built in Arbuckle. 

“It’s going to be pecan only because the problem is is that Pawnees come off in October, so you’re competing against the big Chandler (walnut) crop,” King said.

“If we can’t get those pecans out of the field, into a dryer, and on ships or into a sheller before the Chinese new year, we’ll losing a market opportunity,” King said.

King also thinks more infrastructure is needed in Northern California. There is some going in, but it won’t be exclusive to pecans, he said.

     Garry Vance is a pecan grower and owns a huller in Tehama County. Vance is expanding his current operation by putting in a new huller plant and adding dryer space.

     “We doubled the size of the warehouse,” Vance said. “We put in a completely new huller line, and we extended our drying capacity by 50 percent.”

     Vance also has a new 60 acre planting of pecans. “The first 20 (acres) is going into production this year, and then the 40 acre planting is about two years behind that,” Vance said, adding he would put in more pecans if he found the right piece of ground.

The Future

     Acreage is starting to pick up, but it’s still not at the level of almonds and walnuts, Hanf said. 

“I do see it getting larger in California—definitely getting a larger market share,” Hanf said.