Pecans

August 26, 2022
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With pronunciations ranging from PEAcans to peKAHNS and everywhere in between, this versatile, nutrient-rich nut is popular across the globe. There may not be consensus on how to pronounce “pecan,” but one thing many agree on: this popular nut is growing in popularity year over year.

Contents

Intro to Pecans

The name “pecan” comes from the Algonquin word “pacane,” which translates to “nuts requiring a stone to crack.” Pecans were a staple in the diet of indigenous people from central to eastern North America and Mexico. They grew abundantly, were easier to process than other types of tree nut, and boasted superior nutritional value. To keep this food source plentiful, indigenous people began to cultivate pecan trees for both their own food and trade.

So how do pecans grow?

Major Pecan Growing Regions

In 2020, farmers in the U.S. planted 413,000 acres of pecans. The most abundant production occurs in areas with a frost-free period of at least 180 days. Georgia is the largest pecan-producing state, raising one-third of total production. Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona also account for significant portions of U.S. production.

Pecans can be grown in a variety of climate conditions, including arid, semi-arid, and humid climates, a big departure from their evolution in more subtropical regions. One of the biggest threats to pecans is scab, a fungus that can cause severe crop loss.

West of the 100th meridian (which runs north-south through central Texas and Oklahoma’s panhandle), irrigation is crucial, but lower rainfall and humidity means that pecan scab is less likely to occur.

Rainfall is higher to the east, so watering a commercial pecan orchard is less of an issue. The increase in humidity can lead to pecan scab development, which must be offset by resistant cultivars and increased management, fungicide sprays, and thus, cost.

pecan husks

Major Pecan Varieties

There are over 1,000 varieties of pecans, divided into two groups:

  • Improved: Improved varieties have been painstakingly developed through breeding and grafting. This helps to grow for specific traits and hardiness. Planted orchards grow largely improved varieties.
  • Native or seedling: Native pecans develop under natural conditions. These are less common in commercial production and are produced from the nut with no budding or grafting.

Varieties are further divided into Type I and Type II because of the way pecan trees pollinate. They experience what is known as dichogamous flowering, meaning the male and female reproductive parts do not mature at exactly the same time. This helps maximize genetic variety. Growers plant pairings between varieties that have overlap between their periods of maturity.

  • Type I (protandrous): Catkins (male flowers) appear before pollination.
  • Type II (protogynous): Female nutlets are ready for pollination before catkins appear.

Which variety is cultivated commercially depends on the region and its growing season. For example, the University of Georgia extension office recommends the following cultivars:

  • Caddo
  • Desirable
  • Elliott
  • Forkert
  • Kanza
  • Oconee
  • Pawnee
  • Sumner

Farther west in Texas, commercial growers focus on:

  • Desirable
  • Cheyenne
  • Cape Fear
  • Pawnee
  • Forkert
  • Caddo
  • Oconee
  • Western
  • Wichita
  • Cheyenne

Which variety is cultivated depends on the specific conditions in the region. In a large state like Texas, there are significantly different growing regions—a fact reflected in the overlap with some of Georgia’s cultivars.

pecan orchard

Pecan Lifecycle

Grown on pecan farms in orchards of symmetrical plantings, pecans can take up to a decade before they begin to produce a full tree of nuts.

Pecans flower in the upper and outer areas of the tree, with male and female flowers on the same plant. When female flowers are fertilized by the catkins, nuts form. Pollination occurs when the wind blows, and it’s possible to fertilize trees on the other end of the orchard with a gusty breeze.

Once pollinated, the outer layer of the female flower continues to grow until it completely surrounds the nut within. Nuts grow in clusters of two to six. The first half of its growth is dedicated to getting bigger, while the second half sees the kernel packed into the outer shell. This process is finished and the pecan is mature when the outer hull splits open.

Pecans are typically harvested from early September well into November. How are pecans harvested? Mechanical shakers gently agitate the tree to release mature nuts.

Although pecans may take awhile to bear, when properly cared for these legacy trees can live to be over 100 years old.

Pecan Market Size and Price

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of pecans, producing approximately 80% of the global crop.

Increasing consumer awareness of the health benefits of pecans, plus rising demand for plant-based foods is driving an increase in the market size, especially in developing markets in Asia. The market size for pecans, especially those that are recipe-ready, is projected to increase by 6.8% by 2027 from $2.2 billion to $3.5 billion.

The price per pound varies depending on the variety of pecans and their size and use. Pecans in the shell bring less per pound than those that have been processed, but production of both is up 18% since 2021.

According to the University of Georgia extension, a major constraint for pecan growers is alternate bearing, or an orchard’s tendency to combat stressors by producing high yields one year and low yields the next.

Growers try to combat alternate bearing by maintaining steady, moderate yields through activities like active nutrient and water management, fruit and tree thinning, and disease management.

boring pecans

Pecan Uses and End Markets

Pecans are fast becoming an energy packed and healthy snack in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe. They are processed, flavored, and packed for consumption out of hand, but other value-added products are growing in popularity, including:

  • Confectionary and chocolates
  • Cookies
  • Savory nut bars

In 2019, the Mars company swapped pecans for peanuts in a limited edition version of its popular Snickers bar. It sold out in just a few hours.

In addition to snack foods, pecan husks (shells) can be used as fuel and as mulch. Pecan farms are working to put their discarded husks to better use to expand the versatility of the crop.

Pecans are also used in:

  • Dietary supplements
  • Cosmetics
  • Personal care products

Pecan FAQs

Are pecans nuts?

Botanically speaking, pecans are not nuts. Because they are produced from a flower and have a seed (the kernel that we eat) surrounded by a husk, they are actually classified as a fruit or a drupe. Other drupes include peaches and plums.

People in the southern U.S. will not be surprised to hear that baking a syrupy sweet pecan pie is the most popular use of pecans.

Are pecans good for you?

Yes! Pecans have healthy monounsaturated fat that can lower the level of bad cholesterol in your body. They are also an excellent source of calcium, magnesium, and potassium. These health benefits may be the reason behind the increase in pecan’s popularity in the past decade.

Final Thoughts

While the West Coast is known for its almond, pistachio, and hazelnut production, pecans are a key crop for some growers in the eastern and southwestern United States—and they’re certainly a major part of American cuisine. Take a look at our offerings page to keep an eye out for upcoming pecan orchard investments.

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