Fifty Years with Texas Pecans, Part II
In his last article for Pecan South before he retires, George Ray McEachern briefly shares some of his hard-earned pecan wisdom.
Since the late 1800s, pecans have become a major commercial crop in the warm climates of the United States, Mexico, Australia, and South Africa. These climates have 240 to 280 day growing seasons, where the daily average temperature is between 75 degrees Fahrenheit and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. We are confident pecan orchards will also expand in China and parts of Africa where climates are warm.
Late fall or early winter freezes are a major pecan crop and tree killer when cold temperatures have not slowed growth and prepared the trees for dormancy. Late spring freezes can kill new growth, but growth from secondary buds saves the tree, though the crop may be lost. It will be interesting to see if northern pecan profits survive north of Oklahoma and South Carolina over time. With the blessing of rain comes the plague of scab; this fungal disease has not disappeared and, if not combatted, will kill pecans.
Rainfall or irrigation is another essential for tree growth, nut set, nut sizing, kernel filling, and shuck split. Although rainfall facilitates pecan scab, variety resistance, fungicides, and sprayers have been a sufficient management tool. No precipitation and no scab in the irrigated West continue to play a positive force in growing the highly productive ‘Western’ and ‘Wichita’ varieties without the cost of fungicides. The key to the West rests in having 2 acre-inches of irrigation per week per acre in August and September. If growers in the desert can perfect irrigation, they will reach the highest pecan yields and quality. Deserts around the world with low salt water may one day dominate pecan production. Tree spacing, floor management, and other practices are other factors in irrigation.
A new pecan orchard may take 6 to 12 years to bear 500 pounds of improved pecans per acre. With the high cost of $3,000 to $5,000 per acre to establish an orchard, a grower’s objective is to get the trees into production as fast as possible. However, a family orchard of fewer than 50 acres can be established part-time with lower costs but may require more years before bearing. Each grower or family needs an appreciation for establishment speed and expenses from the beginning. Some new orchards are fast at a high cost, while others are slow with a low price. To establish pecan trees quickly, the grower will need good pecan knowledge, soil, irrigation, management, time, and financing.
Education and Knowledge:
Pecan orchards demand full knowledge of what makes trees grow and bear profitable crops. Within the United States, there are at least four significantly unique management systems due to the limitations or advantages of their location. All southern Land Grant Universities have county agents and specialists who can help growers manage their trees to their full potential. There are many cases where the best knowledge is to not grow pecans because of a region’s limitations.
There are state and national pecan grower organizations that work with pecan specialists with orchard meetings, field days, conferences, newsletters, and publications. The Texas Pecan Growers Association, the Southeastern Pecan Growers Association, the Western Pecan Growers Association, and the Georgia Pecan Growers Association all have annual educational programs that help inform growers of the latest technology and equipment.
Pecan South and other industry communications are important because they form the foundation for pecan scientists and grower communication. Held during the last week of January each year, Texas A&M University’s Pecan Short Course with its accompanying text The Texas Pecan Handbook serves as an essential educational opportunity for growers worldwide. Pecans are different from many or most other commercial fruit crops because lifelong friends within the business freely share information. This sharing is a major positive that should not be taken for granted.
All I will say here for the issue of alternate bearing is that developing a pecan kernel with the finest oil on earth is not an easy plant physiological process. As any grower will tell you, it’s hard work. In my 50 years, we have learned a great deal, but we have still not corrected our alternate bearing challenge. Much has been learned, but we are just beginning.
Quality pecans will always have a market at a reasonable price. A wide variety of production and marketing factors contribute to a variable pecan price issue. The need to make a profit, low-quality kernels, alternate bearing, a limited number of consumers, multiple handlers, and “what is a pecan” challenges have been with the industry from the beginning in the 1890s. The investment in a pound of pecans can be too high. However, pecans have a hard shell, which allows flexibility in sales. Modern processing and storage took some of the “I must sell” panic out of pecans, while big “on” years taught us there is a limit to how many pecans one can market locally. When this occurs, pecans become the ultimate example of free enterprise and the need for creative marketing.
Many people who grow and sell pecans know this work is their ultimate calling. Life is short, and few opportunities in life reward the grower with more positives, friends, and gratification than pecans. From one tree to one acre to one thousand acres, pecans are a way of life that overflows with many rewards. My good friend and long-time pecan grower, Mark Salopek’s funeral procession was a drive through the orchard. There is no better life to live than one with pecans.