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Surprise: Georgia pecan crop may be best in years

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Despite a late, damaging spring freeze and a summertime drought, or maybe because of it, Georgia's pecan crop is on target to be the best in years, says a University of Georgia expert.

"The trees have a big crop set on them now, and it's looking really good," said Lenny Wells, a pecan specialist with the UGA Cooperative Extension.

Georgia pecan farmers could produce 90 million to 95 million pounds this year, he said, double last year's near-record low production and the most since 2001.

A harsh Easter freeze damaged many central and east Georgia trees just as they were blooming. It entirely wiped out a few orchards, he said. But most trees weathered it well in southwest Georgia, the hub of pecan production.

Georgia has been in extreme drought for much of the summer. It has stressed trees at times. But it also has kept disease and insect damage very low, he said, which has helped trees and saved farmers money. About 60 percent of Geogia's orchards have irrigation to supplement water during drought.

Pecan farmers almost always battle scab, a fungal disease that can defoliate trees and cut yields. But due to dry conditions this year, "you'd be hard pressed to find any, even in susceptible varieties," he said.

In a wet summer, farmers may spray for the disease more than 15 times trying to keep it from taking over. This year, however, they've sprayed half that many times. One spray can cost $10 to $14 per acre.

Because heat and drought slow insects' feeding and reproduction, he said, farmers have sprayed much less to control bugs such as aphids, mites and shuck worms, too. And recent high temperatures have almost completely shut these bugs down.

But the crop isn't harvested yet. In the next three to four weeks, the trees will enter a critical time for water. Harvest starts in mid-October and runs through Thanksgiving. Any hurricanes or storms with high winds between now and then could cut the crop short of expectations.

Pecan trees are alternate-bearing, meaning they produce a full crop every other year. Most trees in the state are on the same cycle, and this is an "on" year for Georgia pecans.

Some farmers are interested in evening out this cycle, Wells said, and have started using a technique called fruit thinning.

The technique has been around a long time in farming. The idea is to remove some developing fruit, or nuts, early in a season, reducing the overall load on a tree. The tree then concentrates energy into the remaining fruit, ensuring better quality fruit.

"Fruit thinning basically helps ensure better quality in a year like this," he said. "And it can lead to a bigger crop the following year in pecans."

The idea for doing this with pecans started in the early 1990s, but it's only now gained a little popularity. It has to be done at the right time for pecans, he said, and some care needs to be taken to prevent tree damage.

For more than half a century, Georgia farmers have been major U.S. pecan suppliers. They now grow pecans on 140,000 acres. The crop is worth $50 million to $100 million annually.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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