Finding a Silver Lining
Devastation caused by Hurricane Michael opens door to a new beginning for Georgia pecan producers
Georgia’s pecan producers were dealt a crippling loss in October 2018 when Hurricane Michael’s path through southwest Georgia decimated the year’s crop, splintered limbs and uprooted trees.
While University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agents and agricultural economists estimate that Georgia’s pecan industry suffered $560 million in losses from Hurricane Michael, Extension pecan specialist Lenny Wells (PhD — Entomology, ’99) implores farmers to find a silver lining in this industry-changing natural disaster.
“We want growers to go back and replace those trees that were lost with trees that have better disease resistance, better quality, to be able to produce a good crop without so much added cost,” Wells said.
Wells believes the impact of Hurricane Michael and tariffs that were imposed this year by President Donald Trump exposed a weakness in Georgia’s pecan industry that needs to be addressed — the varieties that Georgia growers plant and how they grow them.
“As long as we had China as a market, the prices the growers were getting were high enough that they could continue to grow those high-input varieties and still come out okay. With the market dropping off as much as it did as a result of the tariffs and an influx of nuts from Mexico, the dropping price was going to make it difficult to come out OK last year even if growers had harvested the nuts they had,” Wells said. “They had so much money invested in growing that crop, they probably would not have recovered a lot of it for the price they would have received.”
The majority of the state’s pecan acreage lies in the southwest Georgia area, specifically Albany, Camilla and Leesburg. Many of the trees located in that region were of the ‘Stuart’ or ‘Desirable’ varieties, older varieties that were vulnerable to scab disease, which can cause leaf loss and produce black lesions on the pecan shucks any time during the season and is difficult to manage with chemical treatments.
Hurricane Michael inadvertently offered many growers the opportunity to replace lost trees with disease-resistant varieties.
Wells recommends varieties including ‘Zinner,’ ‘Ellis,’ ‘Oconee,’ ‘Creek’ and ‘Avalon,’ which was released by UGA pecan breeder Patrick Conner in 2016. ‘Avalon’ is comparable to the popular ‘Desirable’ variety due to its large nut size, but it is not as susceptible to scab disease.
“The hurricane, if you had to look for a silver lining, provided an opportunity for growers to address the situation now that would have been tough for them to address later,” Wells said.
By Clint Thompson