Weather blamed for poor 2021 pecan yield

Published 10:06 am Friday, December 3, 2021

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By Neil B. McGahee

Managing Editor

Three years of varying weather patterns may be the chief culprit in what pecan experts say will be a very short and late 2021 pecan crop.

“I have been hearing from lots of homeowners who may have 5 or 10 trees in their yard,” said Joshua Adams Graves, Agriculture and Environmental Agent for Crisp County’s University of Georgia Extension Office.” Those trees usually produce enough pecans to pay the property taxes but this year’s crop just hasn’t produced nearly as much as last years.”

Indeed, 2020 was a year of very high yields — 140 million pounds just in Georgia — but the 2021 crop is projected to yield about only 60 million pounds.

Like many of nature’s puzzles, you have to go back in time to understand why.

“Most residential trees tend to be older varieties like Stewarts or Desirables,” Graves said. “Hurricane Michael in 2018 spurred those older trees to put on a flush of new growth in 2019 and when that new growth matured in 2020 we saw a big increase in production.”

But weather patterns that spurred production in 2020 had a negative effect on the 2021 crop.

“From the beginning this year’s crop has appeared to be late and short,” Graves said. “A much cooler spring pushed budbreak back slowing the progression of foliage expansion and crop development by at least 10 days.”

Bud break is the time when plants, in this case pecan trees, wake up from winter dormancy. They draw on the energy they’ve stored deep within their trunks and roots through the winter to push out the first green leaves of a new growth cycle.

Dr. Lenny Wells is a professor of horticulture and an extension horticulture specialist for pecans at the Tifton campus of the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

He posits that the delayed bud break may have contributed to pollination problems that limited crop set.

“Following crop set in early summer, I noticed that throughout the state, young orchards (30 years and under) appeared to have a pretty good crop while most older orchards appeared very light to almost blank,” Wells wrote. “Every crop gets shorter as the season progresses but when the season starts out with a limited crop as we saw this year, that crop gets shorter quickly. From my perspective the 2021 crop is setting up to be the shortest crop Georgia has seen since 2006 when we produced 42 million pounds.”

He also noted that frequent rainfall throughout the growing season led to scab issues that were as bad, if not worse, than the 2003 and 2013 crops.

Wells said the 2021 season experienced a double whammy — frequent rainfall along with extended periods of cloudy weather.

“However, the event that did the greatest damage across the state appears to have occurred over a seven day period between Sept. 16 and  Sept. 22,” he wrote. “I mined weather data from various UGA weather stations across the state and found that, at all locations examined, during this seven -day period, solar radiation was half of what it should have been. This occurred at a critical juncture in nut development.”

Wells said kernel filling — the stage where the pecan kernels develop into the final product — normally takes place from mid August to mid September for mid-season maturity varieties. But because the crop was about 10 days late, the required sunlight for photosynthesis was cut in half and the trees simply couldn’t fill the crop as they should.

Wells said that early maturing varieties like Pawnee and Elliott weren’t affected because they had largely finished filling before the extended cloudy weather of that seven-day period in mid-September.

“It was the mid-season varieties, the Stewarts and Desirables that seem to have suffered most,” Graves said. “By mid-November most varieties are ready to harvest and we see a large volume of nuts already harvested. This year, however, we have seen relatively little crop volume come in. Many growers are saying they are ending up with about 30 percent of a normal crop from harvested orchards of mid-season varieties, which make up a large percentage of Georgia’s orchards.”

“Some growers plan to delay harvest until a frost or freeze helps the remaining nuts open so they can minimize harvest costs by only having to harvest over the orchard one time.”

Wells wrote that in July a Texas pecan estimate had Georgia production at 85 million pounds.

“This appeared possible to me at that time but my number throughout the season was more like 70-75 million pounds,” he said. “We never really know until the crop is in, but given how things have played out, I now think it’s unlikely that we make more than 60 million pounds and we may see that number fall even further, below 50 million pounds for the first time in 15 years.”