Hurricane Michael leaves its mark on upcoming pecan season

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By: Emma Wheeler | WCTV Eyewitness News
May 1, 2019

TIFTON, Ga. (WCTV) -- Almost seven months after Hurricane Michael, Georgia pecan growers are still picking up the shells.

Industry leaders expect the upcoming season to see the lowest production in years. With new numbers continuing to come in, agriculture experts say the hurricane wiped out about half of last year's expected harvest.

Dr. Lenny Wells, professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia, said industry leaders projected to produce about 110-120 million pounds in Georgia. The United States Department of Agriculture currently estimates the crop came out to about 56 million pounds.

Pecan trees are now in the early growing season, with flowers just beginning to bloom. With shells still scattered on the ground, the crop is still fighting to recover.

"This is an unprecedented event that has devastated the state of Georgia," said Samantha McLeod, Executive Director of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association.

The Peach State produces about one third of the nation's pecan supply. The hurricane wiped out about 17 percent of Georgia's acreage. Between the lost crop, trees and future income, industry leaders estimate the hurricane caused a nearly $560 million loss.

"When you have a hurricane come through with wind speeds in excess of 100 mph, and it covers such a large swath of the pecan producing area, we knew we were going to lose a huge amount of that crop, and we did," Wells said.

For many Georgia farmers, that loss is still taking root.

"Often times when hurricanes come through like that, you'll see even the following year that the trees will kind of take the year off, even the trees that remain standing," Wells said. "They get stressed, even if they're still standing, they've been knocked around so much by the wind."

But, hope still buds.

Industry experts said the demand for pecans has been growing over the year, both nationally and internationally. That demand has led to the first major planting and acreage increase the crop has seen in several decades.

Pecan trees typically take about 7-10 years before producing a viable crop, and a lot of the new trees are expected to start producing in the next couple of years. Experts hope it can make it up some of the difference of what was lost.

"A lot of the growers had been expecting them to really shoot out here coming up, and they were actually worried about the supply we were going to have with all the additional acres that had been planted," McLeod said. "However, it looks like they might be saving us."

With projects at a nearly 10 year low, many farmers are still optimistic for a bright future, and a strong comeback.

The pecan harvest typically starts around September, so it's still early to say, but Wells believes that as long as conditions stay fair, farmers can keep a handle on potential diseases and the region does not get too much rain this summer, the crop that is still standing is expected to be strong.

The Georgia Pecan Growers Association said many of the farmers who suffered significant losses have been around for generations, and some of the trees are upwards of 50-60 years old. While some have chosen to replant, McLeod said many are waiting on the federal disaster bill before making a decision.

McLeod said reaching out to representatives in support of the disaster bill, as well as continuing to buy and support Georgia pecans, can help farmers continue to recover.

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