Back to January 2024

Research grant aims to improve hurricane guidelines for pecan growers in Georgia

A pecan tree uprooted and laying flat on the ground after a hurricane.

A pecan tree damaged from Hurricane Idalia shows typical damage occurring to uprooted trees. (Photo by Jeffery Cannon)

NEWTON, Georgia—In a significant development for rural communities in Georgia, the University of Georgia and The Jones Center at Ichauway were awarded a research grant to help pecan growers reduce risk from hurricanes. The one-year study aims to improve hurricane mitigation guidelines for pecan growers and understand how hurricane risk changes with tree size and orchard placement.

In the past five years, southern Georgia—home to one-third of US pecan production—was devastated by two major hurricanes. In late August of this year, Hurricane Idalia made landfall in the Florida panhandle as a Category 3 hurricane and continued northeast, affecting more pecan orchards in Valdosta and surrounding areas. Only five years earlier, in October 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall as a category 5 storm in the Florida panhandle and continued toward Albany, Georgia, causing an estimated $560 million in lost pecan production in the southwestern part of the state.

Pecan orchards are a major category of land use in rural Georgia, which is composed of a mosaic of orchards, agricultural fields, and managed pine woodlands. Together these major land uses influence the economic and environmental footprint of the region.

The primary focus of the research is to estimate how wind risk varies with tree size and orchard placement. Pecan trees, ranging from young saplings to towering giants, face differing degrees of vulnerability to hurricane forces. The study will determine the relationship between tree size and wind risk, enabling growers to implement preventative measures.

“The existing guidelines to help pecan growers with hurricane mitigation are fairly sparse,” says the study’s co-lead Dr. Lenny Wells, a pecan extension specialist at the University of Georgia in Tifton. “Current guidelines provide advice on which varieties and soil types may be most susceptible to hurricanes, but they rely on anecdotal observations. More information is needed to provide long-term estimates of risk for growers. The most promising way to reduce wind risk appears to be canopy pruning, which can reduce wind risk and stimulate pecan production,” he adds. As the study progresses, the researchers will work closely with pecan growers in the state and ensure the study’s findings are directly applicable to local practices.

Dr. Jeffery Cannon, who co-leads the study, is a landscape ecologist at the Jones Center at Ichauway who has studied impacts from Hurricane Michael on pine forests. “Wind risk in pine is well-studied, but pecans are unique because they are planted with side spacing, irrigated, and pruned. This makes understanding pecan risk more complex, but it offers intervention points where wind susceptibility can be reduced,” he adds.

The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research program known as the National Agricultural and Food Research Initiative through a new priority to advance research that is responsive to extreme weather events such as Hurricane Idalia. “The program will allow us to act swiftly because much of the data we need to collect comes from stumps of damaged trees. But we need to act immediately because many stumps are quickly removed as growers clean up orchards in an effort to continue production with little interruption to recoup their losses,” says Cannon.

Besides rapid measurements of stumps on the ground, the team will also employ state-of-the-art satellite and computing technology to assess how landscape factors, such as soil type, topography, and even the orientation of orchard rows, interact with hurricane winds. This comprehensive approach will result in more precise recommendations for hurricane mitigation strategies.

Dr. Wells comments on the project’s significance, “Pecan growers in Georgia have been grappling with the persistent threat of hurricane damage. Understanding how wind vulnerability changes with tree size and landscape factors will allow us to provide growers with the knowledge and guidelines to safeguard their livelihoods.”

The study was awarded through the US Department of Agriculture, National Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, Rapid Response to Extreme Weather Events Across Food and Agricultural Systems (A1712), Grant No. 2024-68016-41559. Additional funding for the Jones Center is provided by the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.