Ag News

Georgia pecan growers suffer 'generational loss' from Irma

Most of Georgia's dozens of agricultural commodities experienced damage from Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irma, but the state's pecan growers were hit particularly hard.

The storm blew pecans out of trees, which will affect this year's crop, creating an immediate cash flow problem for farmers who were in many cases a couple of weeks away from beginning harvest.

More concerning to most pecan producers, though, is that Irma knocked down thousands of mature and fully bearing trees, creating what Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black called a generational loss.

"It is a difficult thing," Black said following a tour of Mason Farms in Peach County. "We lead the nation in pecan production. We've seen some generational damage today and we're very concerned about that."

According to the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, the farm gate value of Georgia pecans in 2015 was more than $360 million, making it the state's most valuable fruit or nut crop by far.

According to UGA Extension Pecan Specialist Lenny Wells, every orchard in the state suffered some level of damage. At minimum, this included lost limbs and nuts blown out of the trees.

"Percentage of nuts blown out varies by variety, crop load, and location," Wells said. "On average I see about 10-15 percent of the nuts blown off of the trees. Most growers have at least some trees down."

Wells said most of the trees were between the ages of five and 25.

"This is likely because the canopy of these trees is large in proportion to its root system which may not support the tree in such conditions, particularly if they are bearing a heavy crop load and the soil is moist," Wells said.

Wells estimated a 30 percent crop loss in Georgia pecans, which would mean the value of the loss is more than $100 million. That doesn't include cost of storm cleanup which will have to be done before remaining pecans can be harvested.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said that moving forward, generating revenue from downed trees with their replacements could take 7-10 years after the trees are purchased and planted, which won't happen until 2019 in many cases. Reaching full production potential can take as long as 12 years.

"It's really disheartening to see," Perdue said.

Still, the immediate issues are difficult to ignore for small beginning farmers.

"I'm really concerned about losing that cash flow for this year," said Houston County Farm Bureau Young Farmer Chairman Cason Anderson. "The nuts that were blown out of the trees are still in the husks, and they'll just rot on the ground."

Anderson, who is a member of GFB's Pecan Advisory Committee, has 300 acres of pecan trees and lost 126 trees to the storm. The damage comes with other issues he and other pecan producers must deal with.

"We're not equipped to clean up 300 acres," Anderson said.

Click here for more photos of pecan damage from Irma.