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Boosting the pecanomy: Arizona pecan production peaks

Harvest season is nearly here. In the days following the first frost, large mechanical shakers trundle down county highways into the orchards nearby. Rolling between long rows of trees, the machines grip the ashy-brown trunks with spider-like pincers, shaking the tree from branch to root and peppering the blue plastic tarps laid out carefully underneath with nuts.

Over the last five years, pecan production in Arizona has increased by nearly 25 percent, from 22 to 28 million pounds of pecans per year.

“Arizona’s pecan industry has grown exponentially since 2000. There is an increasing global demand that is driving production up,” said John Caravetta, National Plant Board vice president and associate director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

However, that global demand has been affected by two factors: a vicious trade war with China and the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael to Georgia, the top-producing pecan state in America.

“Nearly all of (Arizona’s) pecans go overseas to either China or the European Union,” Caravetta said.

The impact President Donald Trump’s tariffs is bringing to the pecan market is being felt across the nation.

In Arizona, Chinese consumers make up the core of the market.

“The difference between Arizona and Georgia is that we produce a large, quality nut that’s preferred by the Chinese,” Caravetta said.

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“The trade wars with China have hurt the pecan industry the most,” said Janice Dees, a member of the U.S. Pecan Growers Council. “Because of the 47 percent tariff, the market there is basically shut down.”

Meanwhile, the October hurricane damaged half of Georgia’s pecan crop, causing an estimated loss of 28,000 acres of trees, Dees said. A single acre of pecan trees can yield up to 1,800 pounds of pecans.

High-yielding states like Georgia, which produces over 100 million pounds of pecans a year, have been able to weather this storm by finding other markets to sell their pecans to, Dees said. But Georgia didn’t fare quite as well with the hurricane in October.

“In a normal year when a hurricane hits they count the trees that are down, but this year they’re counting the trees that are still standing,” Dees said. “Georgia had an estimated 150-million-pound crop for this year—all the markers were on target to have a great harvest.”

Georgia produced nearly 80 percent of the pecans sold within the United States. The devastating loss leaves a huge slice of the national market available. And while it’s too early to predict exactly how this will impact Arizona’s market for this year’s crop, local growers have the potential to get a slice of that pie.

Small towns, big markets

Rey Mortensen owns 400 pecan trees in Arizona’s rural town of St. David in Cochise County. He’s been farming there for the last 24 years, selling his pecans from a wooden stand on the side of Highway 80.

“People drive up here just to buy our pecans,” Mortensen said. “The last two years, we’ve sold out by April.”

His orchards are representative of many pecan growers in the San Pedro River valley.

“In the right places, pecan trees do very well,” said Jim Walworth, professor and associate head of the University of Arizona’s Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science. “In Arizona, they’re planted because they’re economical and well-adapted to our environment, producing high-quality yields.”

The state has all the best conditions for growing pecans — low humidity and cloud cover, plus plenty of bright sunlight.

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“In Arizona, we have been blessed to not have some of the diseases that have hit pecans back east, even as far as New Mexico,” Mortensen said.

Pecans use about four feet of water each year, ranking them below some of Arizona’s heaviest water users, such as cotton, alfalfa, and lettuce.

“In the last 15 years, Arizona farmers have made efforts to change their irrigation systems to use water more effectively,” Walworth said. “The majority of farmers have switched from flood irrigation to drip sprinkler systems.”

The world’s largest pecan orchard

Just south of Tucson lies Green Valley Pecan Company, the world’s largest irrigated pecan orchard. With over 4,000 acres of pecan trees in Arizona, Green Valley is the region’s top producer and processor for pecans, handling nearly 30 million pounds of nuts in a year.

The company runs all points of the production chain: from seed to shelling to sale. Most pecan growers in the surrounding counties will bring their harvests to Green Valley to be processed.

The national pecan industry is divided into two main categories — growers and shellers. Growers cultivate and harvest the pecan orchards, and shellers oversee providing the finished product to the consumer.

“It’s like a restaurant that might make their own bread or just source it from somebody. Some people want to be the baker, some want to just be the restaurant,” said Diane Jackson, communications manager for the National Pecan Shellers Association.

When Mortensen first started harvesting his pecans, he took them “down to Sahuarita” (as the locals say) just like everyone else.

“If you were lucky you might get a dollar a pound, and I said, ‘Wow that’s not very good,’” Mortensen said. “It’s hardly worth raising them, by the time you pay for fertilizer, irrigation, tractor work, and fuel.”

After seeing a man selling pecans out of the back of his truck on the side of the road one day, Mortensen decided to try selling them himself. His small roadside stand has since become so popular he no longer takes any of his crop to Green Valley.

Uncertain skies up ahead

The future of Arizona pecans may be bright, but that future rests on one rogue factor — the climate. This year’s National Climate Assessment indicates up to a 5-degree temperature increase in the southwestern United States over the next 30 years.  

While a Category 4 storm isn’t likely to hit Cochise County, Arizona growers are already experiencing the effects of climate change.

“We used to harvest every year on Thanksgiving, but now the pecans aren’t ready in time,” Mortensen said. “Some of the pecans are already starting to open this year, which is earlier than the last two years.”

Harvesting was a key part of the holiday for Mortensen, who would take advantage of the free labor his 10 children and 33 grandchildren provided to bring in the year’s crop.

The 2018 Fruit and Tree Nut Outlook Report furnished by the Economic Research Service states that pecan production in the United States has increased by 8 percent over the last year, and overall crop value has been at a record high two years in a row.

Shorter, cold weather seasons and periods of severe drought are some of the challenges Arizona farmers will face in the upcoming years.

The university is currently working on research that will quantify the specific amount of water each tree needs, so growers can schedule their water use more efficiently, Walworth said.

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If Arizona growers can find a way to weather the effects of climate change, the rewards are promising. According to Caravetta, the pecan market in Arizona is expected to grow over the next five years as growers are projected to plant more trees.

“There is more attention being put towards marketing the health benefits of pecans,” Caravetta said. “We’re hoping to see the same sort of popularity that we’ve seen with other nuts like pistachios and almonds.”

The effects of increasing intensity and irregularity in weather patterns has already seriously impacted the nation’s pecan market.

“Texas has had so much rain they’re looking at a really poor crop this year, and Hurricane Michael took out 500 acres of trees in Georgia’s pecan capitol of the world,” Dees said. “It takes seven to 10 years to get a crop, so you’re looking at residual damage for years to come.”

Pecans already have a leg up on almonds, which are mainly grown in one state, California. Pecans are grown in 15 states, Dees said.

“Having versatility is an advantage,” Dees said.

Dees also sees an opportunity for growth in the challenges posed by the nation’s trade war with China.

“The trade war with China makes us get better because we have other advantages to move into markets like Indonesia, Europe and the Middle East,” Dees said.

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Hannah Dahl/Arizona Sonora News Service

Unripe pecans on a tree in Saint David on Oct. 24, 2018. Pecans are not ready for harvest until after the first frost.