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Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 9:04am

Trade Fuels Boom Market For Pecan Farmers

Georgia pecan farmers are planting thousands of new trees. It’s all to keep up with a growing demand for their product more than 7,000 miles away in China and they’re not stopping there.

Farmer Trent Mason stands in the middle of his 2,000 acre pecan orchard in Fort Valley. On one side are 20-year old trees covered in tiny nuts and on the other 300 acres of 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. Um, you have to spray them. You have to put fertilizer. You can see here how we have a herbicide strip already established here so the weeds aren’t competing with the tree. And, all of that costs money.”

But right now its money well spent. In the last two years the price for pecans has more than doubled. The Chinese discovered the nut during a walnut shortage in 2004. Since then their consumption of pecans has risen 20-fold,

Third generation grower Randy Hudson from Ocilla was one of the first to go into Mainland China in 1999. Back then the Chinese had no word for pecan.

“They actually called it a sean-hirtou, which was a…the word for being a soft-shelled hickory.”

Now the pecan has its own name, the Chinese call it Pecan Gwo. Hudson says it’s eaten during the Chinese New Year and for its health benefits. The native American nut ranks highest among all nuts for anti-oxidants.

“They’ll roast the pecans. They’ll crack ‘em and then they’ll put them into a brine solution to salt roast’em in the shell, you know, as the nut is heated, kind of a lot like salt roasting in the shell peanuts.”

For years most pecans were sold domestically while almond and walnut growers spent millions marketing their commodities overseas. Now Pecan growers are playing catch up and expanding into other parts of Asia. Jeff Worn with the South Georgia Pecan Company just returned from three weeks in India where he served the pecan 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. 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 sautée type deal, and people really ate it up.”

Executive Director of the National Pecan Growers Council Hilton Sigler smiles and says with its burgeoning middle class India could prove to be a better market than China

“Three years from now we’ll probably be moving as many pecans-if we can produce them- in India. There’s 1.3 billion people in China. There’s 1.1 billion people in India.”

Trent Mason checks the irrigation under his new trees. He says it may take growers time to catch up with demand but he’s in it for the long haul.

“I’m seven years before I can start getting decent nuts off of it and really eight, nine, ten before it becomes like getting my money back.”

And with demand exceeding supply, if you like pecans you’d better get used to the high prices.

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