As pecan growers rebuild, some eye climate resilience

In this June 21, 2018, photo, Buck Paulk, owner of Shiloh Pecan Farms, holds a pecan under one of his trees in Ray City, Ga. Georgia is the nation's leading producer of pecans. (David Goldman/AP Photo)

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Fall means pecan season in Georgia, but this year’s crop took a hit from Hurricane Idalia in late August. It’s just the latest disruption for the state’s produce after freezes devastated peaches and blueberries and threatened citrus in the last year. Some farmers and policymakers are trying to help growers prepare for a more volatile climate in the future.

Some South Georgia pecan growers lost whole orchards to Hurricane Idalia’s strong winds. UGA horticulturalist Lenny Wells said the storm likely took around 10 to 15 million pounds from this year’s crop. That’s just a fraction of the total state crop, which surpassed 88 million pounds in 2021 and 125 million last year, but the impact will be long-lasting.

“Normally what we see with storms like this is that we have some injury that shows up later on in the form of, sometimes quality is affected,” Wells said. “So we don’t know the extent of that yet.”

Farmers will also have to replace the lost trees. It costs around $20 each for the trees themselves, he said, plus the cost of labor to replant the trees, the cost of irrigation, and other expenses. It can take six to ten years for those new trees to produce nuts and turn a profit.

Many Georgia pecan growers are still recovering from even more widespread devastation from Hurricane Michael in 2018. Peach growers, too, had their crops destroyed by a freeze this year. 

There is a federal program that helps farmers with the steep cost of replacing those trees. But Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock said it doesn’t allow farmers to adapt to the changing climate because they have to replant the same kinds of trees that they lost. So he’s pushing to change that.

“Currently, the program does not allow farmers to replace those pecan trees with breeds that are more resilient to the very challenges that they face in the first place,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Under the changes Warnock is proposing, instead of replacing a lost tree with the same variety, farmers could pick a more climate-resilient one, such as a more compact pecan breed that can better withstand wind or a more freeze-resistant peach tree.

“Farming is a business where the profit margins are thin to begin with,” Warnock said. “So any kind of challenge, whether we’re talking about climate change, natural disasters, market volatility, impacts whether or not they can finish in the black and continue to do the work that they do.”