Among the places hit by Hurricane Michael was Pecan Ridge Plantation in Bainbridge, Ga., where many of the farm’s pecan trees lay bent over, split open, shattered. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia pecan farmers face more than one hurricane’s worth of pain

Pecans and pecan pie should be as tasty as usual for Georgians this holiday season. But behind the scenes, Georgia’s pecan farming business has been clobbered, and the beatdown isn’t over for one of the state’s biggest crops.

Pecan prices have plummeted by at least a third for local farmers. Much of the state’s crop, once the largest in the nation, is in the mud, or worse. And some of the trouble will last years for a branch of farming that already demanded extra patience. It can take 15 years for a pecan tree to turn a real profit for growers.

The hardships are a result of a triple whammy: awful weather, Chinese retaliatory tariffs and a spike in competition from Mexico.

Consumers, though, are expected to remain mostly immune from the pain.

Thanks to the globally connected nut market and an array of middlemen, prices and supplies at area grocery stores haven’t shown a blip, according to the Georgia Pecan Growers Association.

It’s the organization’s farmer members — and potentially their suppliers, workers and lenders — who are suffering. Some growers are scrounging on the ground to salvage every nut they can. Others don’t bother, given how low prices are.

“It makes you want to cry,” said Richard Grebel, who lives near Albany and farms and manages 2,000 acres in south Georgia.

‘One of the things that scares me … ‘

Devastation from Hurricane Michael was bad enough for various Georgia crops.

The October storm wiped out half or more of the state’s pecan harvest, which had been on pace for an extra big haul, said Lenny Wells, a pecan specialist and University of Georgia horticulture professor. Direct losses for pecans are expected to reach $560 million. That includes likely losses for next year’s crop and damage to trees. Pecan farms are primarily in the southern half of the state with harvests valued at nearly $400 million last year.

Grebel said he’s down 2.5 million pounds of pecans. That loss alone was probably worth $4 million at the market’s current low prices, he said. In addition, many of his trees were twisted and mangled, ruining growth needed to produce nuts next year and beyond.

Michael’s winds also ripped the roof off his cold storage building and cut into other business. Instead of putting five million pounds of nuts through his cleaning plant, including nuts from others’ farms, he got only 100,000 pounds.

“One of the things that scares me is that we are not going to come back next year at all,” he said. “ I know next year we are not going to make any money to speak of.”

Grebel said crop insurance will help. And various state and federal assistance is expected to soften the blow. But farmers say it won’t make up for all the losses. 

Vice President Mike Pence, the Second Lady of the United States Karen Pence and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (left) talk with owners of Pecan Ridge Plantation Rob and Eric Cohen in Bainbridge, Ga. Pence surveyed storm damage from Hurricane Michael. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Triple smackdown

Part of the problem is that farmers faced more than a hurricane, said Chad Walker, a small pecan farmer from Ashburn, Ga.

“The hurricane put everything we had on the ground,” he said. Then weeks of rain made it hard to quickly salvage the fallen nuts. Pecan quality suffered, which further eroded prices.

Georgia pecan farmers had braced for a low pay back this year after China slapped tariffs on U.S. pecans and other products in response to a trade crackdown by President Trump.

That alone was tough for Georgia growers, who typically send 60 percent of their crop to China, which offers extra high prices per pound just in time for the Chinese new year. (Christmas and Thanksgiving are other big draws for local pecan farmers.) The tariffs have virtually eliminated that trade with China, at least for now.

Then came an unexpected surge of lower-priced pecan production out of Mexico during the heart of Georgia’s harvest season. The cumulative result: Georgia pecan farmers were left with the double hit of low supplies and low prices. Actually, make that a triple hit, since the damage to pecan trees will cut into future crops and finances for years to come.

That’s on top of lingering troubles from 2017 when remnants of Hurricane Irma cut into harvests and damaged many of Georgia’s pecan trees.

Prices ‘not really sustainable’

“Its very stressful,” said Danny Levie, who estimated he lost 40 percent of his crop this year alone.

A fifth-generation pecan farmer in Montezuma, Ga., his trees include some planted by ancestors in 1918. He usually sells online at southernpecanproducts.com as well as to grocers, bakeries and caterers. But the bulk of his harvests went to China until the tariffs hit.

“I haven’t sold a single nut to China this year,” he said.

He predicted it will take up to eight years to get his damaged trees back to full production.

A lot can change in agriculture markets in that time. A reduced U.S. walnut crop a decade ago helped spur Chinese buyers to turn to Georgia pecans and boost the industry, according to UGA’s Wells.

Now, with Chinese tariffs and competition from Mexico, the prices available to Georgia pecan farmers “are not really sustainable long term,” Wells said. “They can’t grow the way they have been growing it for the prices they are getting now.”

Other options may help. In recent years, U.S. farmers have built up markets for their pecans in Vietnam, South Korea and Turkey.

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