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Sunny South knows pecans
Bulloch grower expects OK crop in 2009
Natalie Nessmith, left, is helping out father Garland with West Coast operations of the Statesboro-based Sunny South Pecan Company.
      How many times have you been standing outside, talking with someone, and reached down to pick up a pecan off of the ground. It is second nature to Georgians to eat pecans. Pecan trees are a part of our landscape, and there is a very good reason for that.
       Georgia is the number one pecan producing state in the nation, and has held that distinction since the 1950's. Producing roughly one third of all pecans harvested in the United States, Georgia is a hotbed for growers.
      Garland Nessmith, owner of the Sunny South Pecan Company in Statesboro, is one of the largest pecan growers in southeast Georgia. He runs the company with his son Weston and daughters Natalie and Kristin. Nessmith said the pecan is a fickle crop, and you never know what the yield is going to be.
       "This year was supposed to be a great year, and it started out looking pretty good," Nessmith said. "We had lots of nuts on the trees, but we just didn't get enough water at the right time. Further, we have had problems with disease. So, we will just have to see, but that is just one of the challenges that come with being a pecan grower."
       Pecan trees are alternate-bearing, meaning they produce a full crop every other year. Most trees in the state are on the same cycle, and this is an "on" year for Georgia pecans.
      However, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service has predicted that the 2009 crop will not come in as big as the early season estimates predicted. The Southeast Farm Press reported in October that Georgia farmers expect to harvest 90 million pounds, 20 million pounds less than predicted earlier in the season. Recent predictions have reduced that number to 80 million or so. The state record is 150 million pounds, set in both 1993 and 2007.
       "We have seen some very adverse weather conditions in the last sixty days," said Hilton Segler, president of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association in Tifton, Ga. "The rain and cooler temperatures in October have really hurt the crop. The overall quality has been comprised."
       Farming an estimated 30,000 trees spanning across six southeast Georgia counties, Nessmith said "just like that" your whole crop can be gone. "I remember when we had the real unusual record setting freeze on Easter morning a few years ago," he said. "I lost the majority of my crop that year. That's the way it goes sometimes."
       Harvesting of pecans begins in October and continues through December. Once the pecans of harvested, they are cleaned, sorted, and sold in bulk in the shells. "Some pecans are then shelled and sold in a retail fashion or to food manufacturers," Nessmith said. "Others are just sold in the shell. There is a tremendous amount of unshelled pecans being shipped to China."
      It is China's interest in the product that has driven pricing in the pecan market over the last two years or so. "The interest in the pecan in China has risen exponentially," Segler said. "The pecan is viewed as a healthy food and snack in the Asian marketplace."
       According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, China imported 2.2 million pounds of U.S. pecans in 2002. Last year, they imported almost 44 million pounds. Segler said that it appears as if the demand in that market will hold steady.
       "It is really interesting, but the way the product is prepared in China is different from the United States," he said. "The pecans are soaked in a brine, then rolled in spices, roasted, and finally cracked with paddles. Still in their shells, they are packaged in brightly colored cellophane and given as gifts during the Chinese New Year."
       In addition to selling his pecans in bulk, Nessmith has a retail operation offering shelled pecans that have been prepared in a number of ways. "Here at our offices, we have pecans that are covered in chocolate, a key lime preparation, and some that are sweet and spicy," he said. "We have pecan brittle, pecans in the shell, just a number of preparations. I promise you that they all taste good, and they make great gifts."
       Segler said the Georgia pecan industry has made a very concerted effort the last few years to educate the public on the health benefits of the pecan. "There are several nuts that may be more popular worldwide than the pecan such as walnuts and almonds," he said. "But the pecan is just as good for you or maybe even better for you than those other nuts. I think the efforts that we have made to educate the public have really been beneficial to our industry. It has certainly driven up the demand around the world in areas that are very conscious about the health benefits of the food that they eat."
       Nessmith said in good years his yield as been 3,000,000 pound of pecans or more, but he certainly feels that this year will be far less.
       "Unfortunately, this isn't going to be the year that we had hoped for," he said. "But, I'm not crying. I choose to be a pecan grower, and I love what I do. We will just have to look forward to what next year brings."

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