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Georgia pecans spared heavy damage from April rains

by Christina DiMartino | May 17, 2009
"When you get up to 15 inches of rain in a one-week period, you will have water standing in lower places of the pecan groves," said Charles M. (Buddy) Leger, chairman of the Georgia Pecan Commission in Atlanta. "This is a particularly bad scenario when it happens before the trees are budded out, which was the case when the heavy rains hit Georgia in April."

One of the bigger challenges such a weather event can have is that standing water prevents machinery from getting into the pecan groves to spray fertilizer for disease prevention. As foliage starts to come out, spraying is imperative in order to get a good crop.

"The alternative is for producers to fertilize by airplane," said Mr. Leger. "It's a better-than-nothing option, but it's not as effective for good coverage as is getting right into the groves on a piece of machinery. But I am more concerned about the longer-term effects of water standing for days, or even weeks, on the trees. There is no way to get it out of the groves other than through natural absorption into the earth. If the water loosens the trees' roots, and then we get hit with a storm that carries strong winds, it's likely that at least some trees would be uprooted and totally destroyed."

Despite the heavy rains causing standing water, Mr. Leger feels that the majority of the pecan crop will come through without major damage this year. In early May, growers in the southern part of the state -- about 50 miles north of the Florida-Georgia border -- told Mr. Leger that groves were beginning to dry out.

"It is certainly not the ideal situation, but I would say that it's not overly critical," said Mr. Leger. "Reports so far are that we are not taking a major hit."

The Georgia Pecan Commission does not keep precise numbers of pecan acreage in the state. But Mr. Leger said that the number of farms with 30 or more acres of pecan groves stands between 575 and 580 today. Depending on the area of the state, some groves were at pre-bud and others were at the early-bud stage when the rains fell in late April.

The size of the crop tends to fluctuate -- sometimes drastically -- from year to year. In 2007, Georgia growers produced pecans that firmed up revenues of $148 million. But in 2006, the figure was $59 million.

"In 2005, we were at $95 million," said Mr. Leger. "It sounds like a drastic difference from year to year, but our long-term average is between $80 [million] and $90 million per year."

Georgia pecans are harvested in October. Around 40-50 percent of the state's total crop goes to the fresh market, which includes fundraising venues and mail order sales. The remainder goes to processing.

"Georgia pecan growers ship across North America, and they export pecans," said Mr. Leger. "China is our largest export market. They are big pecan lovers. Product that goes to China is shipped in the hull, not shelled."

Mr. Leger is also secretary-treasure of Leger & Son Inc., a leading watermelon producing and shipping company in Cordele, GA.

(For more on Georgia produce, see the May 18 issue of The Produce News.)