Chris Ivich prepares harvesting equipment for the upcoming pecan crop at Couch Orchard in Luther. (Photo by Brent Fuchs)
OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma’s crop of native pecans is on track to be the largest in the country, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
Only three other states are in the running for that honor, however – significant native pecan orchards are exclusive to Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas, with a few trees crossing the state line to Alabama. With a projected harvest of 15 million pounds of native pecans this season, Oklahoma accounts for about half of the variety produced in the U.S., a total of 31.3 million.
New Mexico and Georgia are likely to lead the rest of the pecan-producing states with so-called improved hybrids, which are larger and more attractive to export and candy companies. Improved variety harvest is due to total 246.1 million pounds.
The improved variety harvest is down slightly from last year, agricultural researchers said, due in large part to orchard damages related to hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The latter storm ruined a third of Georgia’s crop, according to the USDA.
But in Oklahoma, projections of the native pecan variety are up 66 percent over last year’s harvest. In some ways, the crop is almost out of hand, said Diane Couch, owner of Couch Orchard in Luther.
“This year, we had to do so much thinning to keep the crop under control,” she said. “If you have too many on the branches, the quality can go down. … If you don’t manage your trees, they’ll probably need a couple of years off to regenerate.”
Couch will harvest her nuts and sell them herself to local consumers. Other producers sell their nuts to accumulators like Jerry Rutledge at Oklahoma Pecan Co. in Ardmore. In turn, he’ll sell off lots to a few commercial shellers who will move the edible nut meats into the domestic and export markets. Rutledge said he’ll buy 7 million to 10 million pounds of pecans of all varieties this fall.
“All the national shellers are saying they paid too much money for pecans last year,” Rutledge said. “But, hell, they always complain.”
Rutledge said that while domestic consumption of pecans has fallen, exports to China have increased. According to federal data, China buys about a third of the U.S. pecan crop. As other countries start expanding their own pecan-growing programs, it’s feared that China will start making deals elsewhere.
That probably won’t have much effect on Oklahoma’s native nuts, however, because they’re not as attractive to big food manufacturing. Pecan growers said they don’t typically track where their nuts end up, but several said they believe Oklahoma pecans stay with regional consumers.