China goes nuts over U.S. pecans

China has gone nuts over pecans, which is great for U.S. growers but might have consumers shelling out more money for the fall food favorite.

The Chinese culinary fancy led to increased imports of pecans from 2.9 million pounds in 2005 to 80 million pounds in 2009 where it has hovered since, according to Monte Nesbitt, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. That has moved prices to the grower from less than a dollar a pound in the late 1990s to $2.65 a pound last year – a trend experts are watching as pecan harvest begins.

“China had all the ingredients you need to make a new food popular there,” said Nesbitt, a horticulture specialist in College Station. “They have continued to show solid interest for eight years. So the pecan has not been a flash in the pan there.”

China has a new love – U.S. pecans. Texas growers are hoping a good crop this year will enable them to partake of the potentially lucrative market. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Kathleen Phillips)

Nesbitt credited a trade mission of U.S. pecan growers intent on taking their nut to the world for starting the pecan popularity in China. But he said other factors lined up to cause the surge as well.

The Chinese already had a much-loved native hickory nut, but it has a very hard shell that when cracked breaks the kernel into small pieces, he said.

“So imagine that here comes a hickory, which a pecan is, that you can actually crack out very easily and get a nice, big kernel in perfect halves,” Nesbitt said. “The Chinese fell in love with pecans.”

Along with its ease of cracking and larger pieces, he added, the Chinese were also ready for pecans for other reasons: their large, growing middle class currently has more money to spend on fresh produce and Western, American food is in vogue in China.

This significant new market has changed the economic picture for pecan growers, Nesbitt said, and new orchards are being planted across the south to meet what seems to be a new level of demand.

Prior to the Chinese interest, pecans were a domestic crop dependent on U.S. consumption, he said.

Studies in the 1990s proved pecans had key health aspects and they were endorsed by the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check Certification program as promoting healthy cholesterol and being packed with antioxidants. Across the U.S. they were added some to salads, healthy snacks and boxed cereals. But that didn’t move consumption much, he said.

The per capita consumption in the U.S. is 0.48 pounds as of 2010, according to the latest available figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“That’s when the U.S. pecan industry realized they needed to get pecans beyond this country and into the hands of the world,” Nesbitt said. “The growers from various states were able to get federal market assistance program funds that allowed a more organized approach to exposing the crop to international food buyers.”

China’s purchase of 60 million to 80 million pounds of pecans in the shell annually equals roughly the entire Texas crop in a good year. The U.S. pecan crop fluctuates from 200 million to 300 million pounds a year.

The National Pecan Shellers Association recently estimated the U.S. crop will be 287 million pounds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate will be announced Oct. 31.

“The effect of the large export market for U.S. pecans is a significant strengthening of prices paid to the U.S. producer,” Nesbitt said. “In 2009, Texas improved (non-native) pecans in the shell sold for $1.64 per pound on average to the grower. In 2010, the price had inched up to $2.50 per pound. Ten years ago, that would’ve been what you would sell pecans for retail.

“And 2012 appears to be at least starting out in a similar positive pricing structure. All the indicators are that we have a sizable pecan crop in Texas. So our growers have a great opportunity to get in on this high pricing this season.”

Texans harvest the nut native trees as well as from about 70,000 acres of improved variety orchards which exist all over the state, Nesbitt said.

Though the lack of U.S. growth in consumption led to the pecan going global, Nesbitt said, the industry hopes the high pricing structure doesn’t displace the American consumer.

“If they’re not willing to pay more for pecans than they did in the early 2000s, then they may need to plant a tree,” he said. “And we in AgriLife Extension are willing to help people select the right variety.”


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