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Feature Article of the Month

Introduction by Jerry Henkin, NNGA Librarian

This year's annual conference of the Northern Nut Growers Association and the North American Fruit Explorers will be held from August 13 - 16 at the University of Georgia Conference Center in Tifton, Georgia. Presentations on nuts will cover chestnuts, black walnuts, chinquapins, and hazelnuts; many will focus on pecan. This month's feature article brings attention to the history of the pecan industry in Georgia.

The Continuing Evolution of the Georgia Pecan Industry
by Darrell Sparks*, Professor,
Dept. of Horticulture, University of Georgia, Athens, Ga 30606

Pecan is not native to Georgia, but Georgia has long been the major pecan producing state in the United States. The industry was established and grew within three waves: the early 1920's; the 1960's and 1970's; and the current wave which began about 5 years ago and continues today. The 1920 orchards were often planted in high percentage to the "big four": Stuart, Schley, Pabst, and Alley. These cultivars survived the test of time and became the backbone of the Georgia pecan industry. All four cultivars can still be found in orchards planted in that era. The early horticulturists in Georgia picked superior pecan cultivars, which gave Georgia an early and permanent advantage in the United States pecan industry.

The 1960's -1970's wave resulted from several events that occurred about the same time. Most important was mechanization of the industry, mainly harvesting, spraying, and irrigation. All three innovations where primarily spearheaded by two growers, Henry Goodyear and Frank Wetherbee, of Albany, Ga. The University of Georgia hired pathologists, entomologists, irrigation specialists, food scientists, horticulturists, and more than enough economists. This group made much significant advancement, including effective fungicides, insecticides, spray schedules, and leaps in pecan nutrition. With increasing profitability, there was a surge in new plantings, mainly Stuart, Elliott, and especially Desirable, and to limited extent, other USDA cultivars. The major USDA cultivar planted, Wichita, proved unsuitable for Georgia. Overall, the era was the beginning of increased profitability and pecan was entering its transition from a plantation to a horticultural crop.

The current wave is closely related to the Chinese market and new cultivars. The Chinese market centers on the Chinese New Year. Georgia markets a high percentage of its crop in China and is well suited to capitalize on the market. Nut maturity is early in Georgia and progressively becomes later in states to the west, giving Georgia a major marketing advantage. Better still, nuts in Georgia mature in time to be harvested and shipped for consumption during the Chinese New Year. The Chinese market prefers large nuts, and quickly the large nut of the widely planted Desirable became the favorite. Prices paid by the Chinese reached record levels and profitability of pecan growing surged. This was a major incentive for growers to replant previous existing skips in established orchards and a gush of new orchards. Growers of Desirable, who utilize technology and culture practices generated from about 1965 and later, can produce a ton of nuts per acre in a mature orchard. Recently released new cultivars that come into production at a young age and with a large, high quality nut that matures early are now having a major impact on production potential and tree spacing in orchards. One of these cultivars, Byrd, planted 25' x 25' or 70 trees per acre can produce a ton of nuts per acre by the 9th year. At $3.00 or more per pound, that is a lot of money. Other new cultivars are similarly promising. Pecan has come a long way in the transition from a plantation to a horticultural crop. However, the transition is not complete and the future will continue to bring exciting and additional progress.

*Dr. Darrell Sparks is an expert in all aspects of pecan. He is the recipient of the 2001 D.W. Brooks Award for Excellence in Research. Throughout his long and distinguished career Dr. Sparks' research has revitalized the pecan industry, doubled the yield per acre, and resulted in great ecological savings for growers. He has written the book "Pecan Cultivars, The Orchard's Foundation" and published numerous scientific and technical articles.

NNGA members may borrow his book from the NNGA Library. A limited number of the NNGA Annual Report from 2006, containing Dr. Spark's article "Adaptability of Pecan to its Native Range" (issue 97, pages 71 - 115) are available for sale.
Jerry Henkin, NNGA Librarian,

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Updated: May 10, 2017