Georgia Farmers Hail China's New Taste For Pecans
About 80 percent of the pecans eaten in the world are grown in the United States, and Georgia is the country's top producer. In a place referred to as the Peach State, it's the pecan farmers who are planting thousands of new trees.
The farmers are trying to keep up with skyrocketing demand from more than 7,000 miles away, in China.
Working in his pecan orchard in Fort Valley, Ga., south of Atlanta, farmer Trent Mason leans over and fiddles with the irrigation system.
It's been an exceptionally dry spring and summer, and Mason is trying to keep his trees alive. On one side of the 2,000-acre orchard are 20-year-old trees covered in tiny nuts; on the other side are saplings, planted in January.
"It's like a little baby. You can see they're already irrigated, so if they weren't, they wouldn't be growing. You have to spray them. You have to put fertilizer. ... We have a herbicide strip already established here, so the weeds aren't competing with the tree," he says. "And all of that costs money."
Right now, it's money well spent. In the past three years, pecan prices have doubled.
The Chinese began buying pecans in 2004. Consumption skyrocketed three years later, thanks to a global walnut shortage and a record pecan harvest. Since then, consumption has more than doubled.
Grower Randy Hudson was one of the first to export to China, back in 1999. Back then, the Chinese had no word for pecan.
"They actually called it shan he tao, which was the word for being a soft-shelled hickory," he says.
Now the nut has its own name: "pecan guo."
"They'll roast the pecans. They'll crack them, and then they'll put them into a brine solution to salt-roast them in the shell as the nut is heated," Hudson says, "kind of a lot like salt-roasting in-the-shell peanuts."
For years, most pecans were sold domestically, while almond and walnut growers marketed their commodities overseas. Now pecan growers are catching up and expanding into other parts of Asia.
Jeff Worn of the South Georgia Pecan Co. just traveled to India, where he served pecans at a food show.
"If somebody tried to bring pecan curry over here, how do you think it's going to go over? Probably not very well," he says. "So, you've got to be accustomed to their environment. And we were cooking pecans with rice and things like this at the booth, and bell pepper, and kind of like a saute-type deal. And people really ate it up."
Hilton Segler, executive director of the National Pecan Growers Council, says that with India's burgeoning middle class, it could prove to be a stronger market than China.
"Three years from now, we'll probably be moving as many pecans, if we can produce them, in India," Segler says. "There are 1.3 billion people in China. There are 1.1 billion people in India."
Segler says right now pecans are a great investment and more consistent than the stock market.
Mason says it's about time, because for years farmers just broke even. Between 1960 and 2000, pecan prices remained low.
"I remember Dad saying you could get a Coke and a MoonPie for 25 cents," he says. "And now, a Coca-Cola is $2 and a MoonPie is, what, 50 cents? So, that's $2.50. That's a lot of increase when we were staying the same for a while."
Mason says it's going to take growers time to catch up with demand. His new trees won't produce nuts he can sell for about a decade.
With demand exceeding supply, if you like pecans, you'd better get used to the high prices, too.
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