In Bulloch and surrounding counties, Hurricane Matthew caused lasting damage to pecan orchards and put a Grinch-like whammy on what promised to be a fine 2016 crop for Thanksgiving pies, Christmas fruitcake and export to China.
"We had a good crop and we were getting fairly close to beginning harvest," said Bill Tyson, University of Georgia Bulloch County Extension coordinator. "Some of those trees that went down still had about three weeks before the nuts would have been mature, and that's kind of what's causing the problem now."
As Tyson explained and two of Bulloch County's largest pecan producers confirmed, the minority of trees that tumbled over is only part of the problem. Fallen limbs block the way through the orchards for the mechanical sweepers, tree shakers, blowers and harvesters used to gather the nuts. Meanwhile, mature pecans are falling, and bringing in tractors, trucks or other heavy equipment to remove the limbs and wrecked trees threatens to crush the nuts already on the ground.
Garland NeSmith is probably Bulloch's biggest grower. Owning and leasing orchards, he with the help of a few employees tends about 1,000 acres of pecan trees in Bulloch and Burke counties. About 700 of those acres are in Bulloch, he said. NeSmith estimates he had 300 trees blown completely down.
About 10 large pecan trees can cover an acre, so those 300 trees might cover about 30 acres, but the actual loss is much more extensive, especially to the current year's crop.
"You've got far, far, far more damage from all of the limbs broken out than the number of trees down," NeSmith said. "You've got all of those limbs broke off and then in some cases you've got maybe 35, 40 percent, maybe even 50 percent of the nuts that are blown off or damaged."
Tyson cited a range of 20- to 50-percent damage for Bulloch County's pecan crop overall. Interviewed the first week of November, he said the damage was too varied to give a single estimate, with some trees totally lost and others leaning badly, plus the many broken limbs and the challenge growers face in cleaning up while gathering as much of the remaining crop as possible.
Before Hurricane Matthew roared through on the night of Oct. 7, growers were anticipating a particularly good harvest.
"Probably not the best ever, but I would say a very good crop," said multi-county pecan grower Newman Pryor. "The best crop I've ever seen was in 2012. This one was going to be, I would say, at least 80 percent of that. It was looking good."
Add to that the demand from China, which discovered a taste for pecans and has pushed prices to historic highs in recent years, and growers are keenly aware of lost earnings. NeSmith noted that the Chinese buy somewhere close to half of the crop, and insist on the best, making "Chinese material" a term of art for top-quality pecans.
Georgia leads in pecans
The United States, where the pecan tree is native, produces the vast majority of the world harvest, and Georgia is the leading pecan producing state. Georgia's pecan harvest was valued at $313 million in 2014, the most recent year for which a Farm Gate Value Report has been published by the University of Georgia's Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.
That made pecans Georgia's 10th most valuable agricultural commodity, of 60 ranked in the center's report.
As of two years ago, Bulloch County ranked 26th among Georgia's 159 counties in pecan production, with a $3.23 million crop reported from 3,055 acres. Tyson gave a smaller estimate of just 1,200 acres of pecan trees in commercial orchards, which seems more in line with the production value relative to other counties.
The leading pecan producing counties are in the state's southwestern quadrant, where top-ranked Mitchell County's crop was valued at $38.3 million and second-ranked Dougherty County's at almost $37 million.
Screven County resident Newman Pryor, his father, John Pryor, and Newman's brother-in-law, Kyle Sommer, tend about 700 acres of trees in five counties: Bulloch, Screven, Jenkins, Effingham and Chatham. Of that acreage, about 40 percent is in Bulloch, Newman Pryor said.
As bad as Chatham
They have only one orchard in Chatham, but "it's a really good orchard, and now it's pretty much wasted," he said.
What surprised him was that the damage in Bulloch County was as bad, or worse, than Chatham nearer the coast, he said. Jenkins County orchards, on the other hand, had few trees down but many limbs were broken even there.
"We lost a lot of trees, and the biggest problem with that is cleaning up," Pryor said. "We're losing a lot of crop because we're having to destroy it cleaning up, and the most concerning thing that we're seeing is that it's affecting even what's on the tree."
Besides the shell consumers are familiar with, a pecan has an outer shuck, soft and green and first but drying to hard and black, that usually remains on the tree after the nut falls out. Some nuts are falling while still stuck in the shuck, which hardens, both growers reported.
"Even though there's good quality meat inside, there's no way to get the shuck off once it dries on there," NeSmith said.
This week, walking through an orchard near Brooklet where a number of trees were down, NeSmith picked up a pecan that looked good at first glance, but had cracked and was rotten inside. He hopes not to see more of this, but said quality grades been down for some nuts already sent to market.
Five to 10 inches of rain before and during the storm saturated the ground, loosening the hold of tree roots, NeSmith observed. But with no rain since Hurricane Matthew, drought is now also affecting the pecans, slowing opening of the shucks, he said.
Growers at this point do not know the full extent of the damage, and the cleanup has only begun.
Nesmith received quotes of $250 to $2,000 per tree, based on size, from someone in the business of removing whole trees.
But he said he is not ready for that step yet. Instead, his process is first to use a sweeper to clear paths into the orchard, sweeping fallen nuts out of the way and save these, then bring in a tractor and trailer for removing limbs, using chainsaws when necessary. Finally, he will work on removing fallen trees and harvesting the rest of the nuts the usual way.
"It's 10 times more work than normal, with all the steps to go through it, just added expense," NeSmith said.
Pecans are NeSmith's only crop. But Pryor and his family also grow cotton and peanuts, and with the pecan orchards all set before the storm, he had planned to focus on harvesting the row crops first.
"Now it's just a nightmare because we're all spread so thin," he said.
Although the trees that lost limbs can produce new growth, some of the trees NeSmith lost were 60 to 100 years old. Young trees transplanted from a nursery usually start bearing reliably in eight to 10 years but would take decades to reach their full potential.
"If you were to plant one here, you're probably looking at 50 years for it to be doing what these were doing, or in some cases 60 years, 70 years," NeSmith said. "It's gone forever."