Friday November 27th, 2015 6:54AM

SC, Ga pecan crop hit by rains; harvest not up to par

By The Associated Press
ORANGEBURG, S.C. (AP) If you haven't gotten pecans for the holidays, you had best get cracking.

Heavy rains earlier this year have put a big dent in South Carolina's pecan crop, and, as demand increases, including from China, prices for the prized holiday nuts are likely to rise.

Perry Arant, whose OMC Feeds company shells the sweetmeats for small growers, says his storeroom should be bursting this time of year.

``We've hardly seen any nuts yet,'' said Arant during a recent tour of his ``Nut House'' in Orangeburg.

The small building, located on the grounds of the OMC Feeds operation he co-owns, encloses a storeroom and several processing machines that would normally be clanging as the pecans and their shells are cracked and separated.

``By now, we should have been almost 100 percent full,'' Arant said of his empty store room. Arant said a few growers have trickled in as Thanksgiving has approached, but only about three or four a day at most.

David Haynes, an Orangeburg resident who dropped by with a small bag of nuts to crack and sell, said the pecan trees on his land just weren't producing this year.

``The trees, they just look sick to me,'' said Haynes, adding, ``Last year, we got lots more than this.''

South Carolina Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture Martin Eubanks said heavy rains this past spring came when the nut trees were pollinating, harming the formation of the nutmeats inside the shells. And besides, the pecan trees appeared to be in a year to yield less, even without the rains, Eubanks said.

While the proper use of fertilizers can help crops produce a higher yield in an alternate year, this year's rainfall and crop cycle became a one-two punch that seems to have hit South Carolina pecan growers particularly hard.

``We just had too much rain at the wrong time,'' said Arant.

Freddy Felder, owner of the Orangeburg Pecan Co., said what he has seen come in so far just doesn't measure up.

``This year has been very disappointing,'' said Felder.

His business, which has been in the family since 1939, turns to producers from other states if need be so he can maintain a quality product, particularly for the nuts he sells via the internet.

Felder's company website tells the tale of pecans as ``an uniquely American product,'' grown in the South from the Carolinas to Texas.

He said some Carolina residents tell him they are partial to the taste of the pecans that grow in South Carolina, compared to those from Texas, Oklahoma or New Mexico, which grow in more arid soils.

``We think the Southeastern pecan is preferred'' because of a higher oil content that produces a richer taste, Felder said.

Pecans come in 23rd on the list of major crops in South Carolina as compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Statistics Service.

Lamar Jenkins of the Southeastern Pecan Growers Association said crops in Georgia also were hit by periodic heavy rains this past year. The rains, coupled with a lack of sunshine, created a ``loss of about 20 percent of the crop'' and also caused some quality issues.

Jenkins, whose organization represents growers in states from North Carolina through Alabama, said some states weren't affected by the rains. Western states such as California and New Mexico appear to be doing much better, he said.

``There's a lot of pecans out West'' this year, Jenkins said.

While the total numbers of this year's crop won't be in for some weeks, Jenkins said a big crop can amount to 300 million pounds, an average at about 230 to 250 million and a small crop around 200 million. He said he couldn't hazard a guess about this year's.

Some processors have been able to use pecans stored from last year, he said, so this year's problems may not show up in the stores until next year.

``Every year is different and it all depends on the weather,'' he said.

Bill Yandle, who helps run his family's Yandle's Roadside Market in Columbia, came to Felder's Orangeburg warehouse to pick up about 300 pounds of pecans.

``In a good year, I can sell 2,000 pounds,'' said Yandle, who added that he'd be back for more, if he can get them.

``My customers want to start baking as soon as they can get 'em,'' he said, heading out the door with a hand cart loaded with cases of pecans.

Eubanks said additional pressure on the market is coming from China, where residents have developed a fondness for the American product.

``There just might be some pecans in shorter supply this year, and prices a bit higher,'' the agriculture official predicted. ``My advice is to get 'em while you can, and put 'em in the freezer if you want them for that holiday pecan pie.''
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