During last year's pecan harvest, John Grundmann was sacking candy to keep busy. Drought decimated the crop, and there just weren't any nuts to crack and shell at his business, a commercial pecan sheller, Valley View Pecan Co. in Shawnee.
This year is different.
“I've got something to do this year,” Grundmann said, the sounds of a busy season around him.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates Oklahoma's pecan production at 25 million pounds this year, more than four times last year's production, when just 6 million pounds were harvested.
However, Mike Spradling, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and a pecan grower himself, believes the 2012 estimate is high. The drought is still affecting the state's pecans, he said, and even though there are a lot of pecans, they are small, causing most commercial shellers to shun them or pay peanuts.
Oklahoma pecans are going for 60 to 70 cents a pound, the USDA said. Last year, producers were getting $1.50 a pound.
“It was a windfall for the growers last year,” Spradling said. “It's going to be a windfall for the shellers this year.”
It's a perfect example of the sometimes brutal cycle of supply in demand in agriculture. In lean times, farmers with crop to sell are paid well. But when crops are plentiful, pay is low.
Compounding the issue this year is the pecan surplus shellers have in cold storage.
Pecans retain their quality for several years when frozen, so there is typically about a two-year supply in storage, Spradling said. Despite the low wholesale prices, retail prices remain high.
Drought can affect a pecan tree in five ways, Spradling said.
It can reduce the quality of the crop if the nuts don't have enough moisture to fill the shell, it can affect the size of the nuts, it can prevent the shuck from opening up, it can stress the tree so it loses its leaves and, in the most extreme cases, the tree will completely die.
Spradling recalls hearing of Texas pecan grower who lost 65,000 young pecan trees — his entire orchard — in last year's drought after his municipality cut off water to his irrigation system. The trees take six to eight years to begin producing nuts and they can't be insured, Spradling said.
Randy Bryant, of Bryant Pecan Co. in Ada, said his family's orchard lost a third, or about 1,000, of their pecan trees in 2011.
“Last summer, we spent $200 a day on water trying to keep our trees alive and we weren't able to take care of all of them,” he said.
But this year, they are about halfway through a harvest that will produce about 200,000 pounds of pecans, a third less than their average 300,000 pounds. Bryant said commercial shellers don't want nuts under half an inch, which means he is throwing away the smallest pecans.
Water is needed during the months of June and July to plump up the nut meat, and this year, early summer was dry, said Charles Rohla, assistant professor for The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, who focuses on pecan research.
“It's a blessing that we have pecans. But because of the drought, the size of the pecans makes it hard to sell,” Rohla said.