Tropical Storm Irma takes bite of Georgia’s pecan crop, loss exceeds $100M

Ag Secretary Perdue visits pecan farm to see Irma damage

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Congressmen Bishop and Scott, visit Mason Pecan Farms in Peach County damaged Sept. 11, 2017, by Tropical Storm Irma.
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Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Congressmen Bishop and Scott, visit Mason Pecan Farms in Peach County damaged Sept. 11, 2017, by Tropical Storm Irma.

Nearly a third of Georgia’s pecan crop was wiped out by Tropical Storm Irma, resulting in a more than $100 million loss for the state’s pecan growers, state and federal officials said Friday.

Most pecan farmers were were only days away from harvest in what was expected to be a bumper crop this year.

At Mason Pecan Farms, off Buckeye Road just south of Ga. 96, about 4,000 trees had been uprooted. Wind gusts reached 60 mph in some parts of the midstate.

“We’ve seen the devastation to a level, particularly (for) pecans, that we’ve not seen in quite some time,” Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said to a dozen news reporters at the farm. “We lead the nation in pecan production, but we’ve seen some generational damage today, and we’re very concerned about that.”

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. Reps. Sanford Bishop and Austin Scott joined Black on a tour to survey damage at a few pecan farms in middle and south Georgia.

Wind and rain from the storm in Middle Georgia was “even worse than southwest Georgia, where the eye (of Hurricane Irma) came closer to,” Perdue said.

Georgia is America’s No. 1 supplier of pecans. The roughly 88 million pounds Georgia produces annually makes up about a third of the country’s pecan production, according to the University of Georgia extension office.

Mason Pecan Farms likely will have to wait until 2019 until it can replace the trees that were blown to the ground, Perdue said. What’s more, the trees take up to seven years to a decade to mature and produce nuts.

Pecans are “a generational crop,” Perdue said.

“These trees are spoon-fed,” he said. “That means they’re sprayed for insects and disease, they’re fed for fertilizer and other things to make a good healthy pecan for us to enjoy.”

Bobby Lane, owner of Lane Southern Orchard Properties, estimates about 20 percent of his pecan crop was ruined. However, pecan trees planted between Peach trees were mostly spared.

“Where we didn’t have peaches inter-planted, we had significant damage,” Lane said. “We even lost some peach trees.”

The 2017 peach crop for Middle Georgia peach growers was their worst in a decade. Growers reported losing about 80 percent of their crop due to record low chill hours over the winter. These are the hours that temperatures fall below 45 degrees while peach trees are dormant. Growers like to have about 1,000 chill hours.

While there’s a tree insurance program in place, Jeb Barrow Jr., president of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association, said it is unaffordable.

“Having a tree insurance program that works from the grower’s perspective is vitally important,” Barrow said. “I can’t think of anything you could do that would stabilize this industry more than that.”

Scott said he plans to work with farmers “to try to find a way to provide an affordable insurance program” for producers of non-traditional crops “that will help minimize the loss anytime we have a storm like this.”

Bishop said the the storm’s destruction of crops was instructive.

“Risk management is one of our greatest challenges that faces our agriculture producers,” Bishop said. “We want to make sure that when we write the farm bill ... and set policy for agriculture, that we have this in mind.”

Perdue passed out paper cards that listed USDA contact information for each region. Printed at the bottom of the card was a quote by Perdue that said, “President Trump’s directive is to help people first and deal with paperwork later, and that’s what the USDA is doing.”

Hurricane Frances in September 2004 was last time Georgia’s pecan industry suffered a comparable loss. The state lost between a quarter and half of its pecan crop, resulting in higher prices for the nuts.

Laura Corley: 478-744-4334, @Lauraecor