South Miss. pecan crop hit by multiple perils; still plenty around

Published 5:56 pm Monday, December 11, 2006

At the Pecan House along U.S. 49 in McHenry, the owners like to say they do everything to the little oddly shaped nut that can be done. The country store’s pecans are fried and salted, dipped in white chocolate, made into pies, pralines and fudge or just served warm in a bag.

Phyllis Shoemake, who owns the business along with her mother and husband, said South Mississippi pecans are absent from her store because they are nearly impossible to get — local orchards are not producing a commercial crop. The nuts she imports from North Mississippi and the national market come at prices that have jumped since last year.

“There was no local crop that was not hit by Katrina. If anyone in the six coastal counties has one this year, I don’t know about it,” Shoemake said. “It will take a couple years to see a really good crop.”

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State climatologist Charles L. Wax said the hurricane was just one part of a four-step atmospheric dance that has severely stressed crops. Katrina was followed by a drought, then a late-spring freeze hurt agriculture further and finally another drought this year, which has put some orchards over the edge. They have combined with other economic factors to push wholesale pecan prices up nationally.

“I know a lady in Picayune who had 50 acres of pecan trees,” Wax said. “Every one of those trees were blown down. And there is no way to predict what is going to happen next season.”

Though this year’s local output does not look good, Mississippi State University horticulturist John Braswell said the Delta and North Mississippi are poised to make up the difference.

“There’s not much left in South Mississippi because of the storm, but overall for the whole state production was up,” Braswell said.

A slightly bigger harvest this year, though, is not bringing wholesale prices back down. Shoemake said holding her retail prices steady is putting increasing on the business.

“Pecan prices are the highest we have paid in 30 years,” she said.

In 2005, Mississippi produced one million pounds of pecans commercially at an average commodity price of almost $1.76 per pound, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mississippi tied with Florida for the smallest crop size recorded by USDA, which lists 15 states.

Though local crops may have temporarily evaporated, The Pecan House’s Shoemake was not concerned over a supply crunch. Customers streamed in on a recent weekday morning, and with the holiday buying season under way, demand was clearly not a problem, either.

“There’s nothing better than a warm pecan pie,” she said.

Pecan trees belong to the same family as hickories and walnuts.

Pecans naturally grow from Texas to the Mississippi River valley and from northern Mexico to southern Illinois.

The nut has been introduced into Israel, South Africa, Brazil, Australia and eastern states such as Georgia, which has become the top producer in America followed by Texas and New Mexico.

In 2005, 280 million pounds of pecans were produced in America, valued by the USDA at $407 million.