The Georgia pecan harvest is well underway and many growers are not pleased with what they’re finding. Overall the state crop is off by about 1/3 of what was expected according to many growers. The region in extreme southern Georgia and east Georgia through which Hurricane Idalia passed is suffering from a further, storm-reduced crop as well as some quality loss on some early varieties. One problem we saw pretty uniformly throughout the state on early varieties like Pawnee and Creek was a high percentage of green shucks that failed to open. We have even seen sticktights on Desirable in some places, which we almost never see. Many of these green shucks/sticktights on multiple varieties had poorly filled kernels and pops inside. Anytime there is a widespread phenomenon such as this, the cause is environmentally related. There are a variety of environmental factors that contribute to these issues, many of which we suffered through this year. Following a rainy summer, many areas turned hot and dry during the kernel filling and shuck split periods. In such cases, particularly where there is even an average crop on the trees, it can be nearly physically impossible for the trees to take up all the water they need to finish the crop, even with irrigation, because irrigation only covers a small percentage of the root system that has to feed the crop.
Another factor that likely played a large role in what we are seeing this year is the late spring freeze that occured on March 20. We had seen budbreak on some varieties as early as late February so we had been off to an early start and catkins were out, as were female fowers on some varieties. There was damage in many orchards in portions of the trees that were furthest along. It is possible this led to a higher degree of self-pollination than usual. Lack of pollination will lead to nut drop but self-pollination often allows the nuts to develop to maturity. However, self-pollinated nuts are usually inferior, with a high percentage of wafers and pops. This appears to be the scenario this year and underscores the need for adequate pollinator varieties in the orchard.
Another phenomenon we are currently seeing in some areas is a thicker than normal shell in many varieties, which tends to reduce kernel percentage even though the kernel itself has a perfect appearance and is of high quality. It could also be that the nuts are large this year, as I’ve seen in some cases, which makes the kernel harder to fill. Pecan shell thickness is known to vary with year and geographic location. The generally accepted theory is that for a given variety, the lower the humidity, the thicker the shell. While the data supports this, our weather conditions for 2023 do not fit the model. Go figure. Perhaps we had dry conditions at just the right time at which the shell was forming. This would have had to occur prior to shell hardening because no further growth occurs once shell hardening takes place. The only windows I can see for this were at the end of July and again right around mid-August when shell hardening should have been starting to take place on some varieties.
Overall, this has been one of those years in which a short crop gets shorter. I don’t know what our state crop volume will be this year and no one does. It is a moving target. 2 years ago we appeared to have one of the worst crop loads I had ever seen in this state and we ended up producing 88 million lbs once all the receipts were gathered. The majority of this came from trees 20 years and under, much of which was planted after 2010. We have a lot of young acreage coming into production and that makes our on crop years, as well as our short crop years, larger. Whatever the number for this year turns out to be don’t be surprised if its larger than you think. The good news is that there is strong interest from China this harvest season. This, along with the ever-shortening 2023 crop volume could, in my mind, help to shore-up prices for growers. But, that remains to be seen. Current Georgia pecan prices can be viewed in the latest NASS report found here (updated on Tuesdays and Thursdays through the harvest season): https://www.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/tv_fv140.txt