If Texas pecan growers and eaters are having to look hard for a kernel of good news this year, it is in the quality and nutrition the nut offers.
The state will yield only about 32 million pounds of pecans this year, less than half of the 2007 crop and far under the average 60 million-pound harvests, according to the Texas Agriculture Statistics Service.
"The light production this year is the result of a big crop last year and the lack of rain at the end of the 2007 season," said Dr. Larry Stein, AgriLife Extension horticulture specialist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Uvalde. "Production was not only affected by the drought, but also the rains we received in September which caused a good amount of disease."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in October forecast pecan production at 204 million pounds (in-shell basis), down 47 percent from last year's crop and 2 percent below 2006. About 85 percent of the total, or 171 million pounds, are the improved varieties while 16 percent, or almost 33 million pounds are from native trees, the USDA estimated.
While production is down significantly from last year, the quality of the pecans is generally good, Stein said.
"Since there were fewer pecans coming from a more concentrated area this year, those locations were harder hit than usual by insects and wildlife that typically feed on pecans, including raccoons, squirrels and deer," Stein added. "On the plus side, we're having good harvest weather here in South and South Central Texas and the pecan harvest, which started here about three weeks ago, will continue for about another month.
Mike Adams of Henderson, president of the Texas Pecan Board, said the nut trees traditionally bear large and small crops in alternate years.
"Texas is a diverse pecan growing area also because we have both native trees and improved variety orchards," said Adams, who is also a grower. "Overall, I’d said this year’s crop is mediocre and spotty. In some areas, there will be a good crop with good quality, but in other areas, especially those damaged by Hurricane Ike, it will not be so good."
He mentioned one pecan farm in southeast Texas that had about 80 percent of its 50- and 60-year-old trees blown down by the hurricane.
Mediocre harvest or not, consumers will clamor after the much-loved holiday nut, industry officials say.
"As usual, demand for good-quality pecans has been strong in the early season," according to Cindy Wise, Texas Pecan Growers Association spokesperson. "Prices paid to growers have been strong thus far, and most of the good quality pecans harvested so far this year have gone to the giftpack and fundraiser markets.
"Commercial shellers are not very active yet," she said. "They will wait until more volume becomes available to begin buying in earnest."
A large inventory in cold storage from 2007 plus a fairly large Mexican pecan crop will make up for any shortfall in the current crop, she noted.
Mexico, the major pecan exporter to the U.S., is expected to produce almost 199 million pounds, up 16 percent from the previous year, according to Jose Pena, AgriLife Extension management specialist. As much as 72 million pounds of pecans come into the U.S. from Mexico each year, he said.
"Consumers should not have any problem finding good quality pecans. The native crop is where the significant shortfall is, and these are typically sold to commercial shellers and used for ingredient purposes," Wise said.
For top quality, early maturing inshell pecans, Texas growers have received $2.50 per pound and higher in the early part of the season, she said. Prices would be expected to decline somewhat as the giftpack/fundraiser markets fill their early-market needs and commercial shellers become more active.
"Consumption for pecans and other tree nuts has been very strong for the past couple of years, and we attribute that to the positive health message that has emerged from various research studies," Wise noted. "Pecans have more antioxidants than any other tree nut and are actually ranked high among all foods for antioxidants, an important component of disease prevention."
Adams agrees. He said the pecan board, which collects checkoff money from producers to use for research and promotion, envisions assuring that the nuts are available and consumed year round.
"We are concerned with producing high quality, healthy nuts," Adams said. "So we are dedicated to getting a No. 1 pecan on consumer plates. We are more than just for holidays, and consumers are showing a preference for them."
For a list of where to buy this year’s nuts, see the Texas Pecan Growers Association site at http://www.tpga.org/buysellpecans.html .