Hurricane Michael Leaves Mark on Georgia's Pecan Industry

Clint Thompson

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018

Georgia’s pecan industry was forever changed by Hurricane Michael’s path of destruction through the southwest part of the state on Oct. 10-11, according to Lenny Wells, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension pecan specialist.

In Dougherty, Lee and Mitchell counties, which produce 30 percent of Georgia’s pecan crop, Wells estimates that 30-40 percent of the pecan trees were destroyed.

“Pretty much every orchard in the state has had damage of some kind,” Wells said. “We’re seeing limbs down, trees down, trees split. Under all of that are good nuts that have blown out of the trees.”

Growers who still have trees standing are now busy cleaning up debris and limbs while avoiding the harvestable nuts lying on the ground.

“In some orchards, that’s going to be impossible. They’re going to have to run over some to clean up, especially over in the worst-hit areas,” Wells said.

Overall, Wells believes Georgia lost half of this year’s pecan crop.

One of the farmers significantly impacted by Hurricane Michael was Eric Cohen, a graduate of UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and co-owner of Pecan Ridge Plantation in Decatur County in southwest Georgia.

In Bainbridge, Georgia, Cohen says between 70 and 80 percent of his trees were destroyed.

“It’s going to cut us down from a 1,400-acre operation, I’m pretty sure, to a 400- or 500-acre operation. We’ve just got to pray we can withstand it,” Cohen said. “The problem with pecans is, you insure this year’s crop. That tree that is gone is not insurable. It’s not like cotton or corn that can be replanted. You’re looking at 10 years (before a new pecan tree can produce), but it’s just the life of a pecan farmer.”

The difficulty facing some producers is how to move forward. For this year’s crop, growers have to decide on how and when to harvest the pecans that are on the ground.

UGA Extension’s advice from Wells is to let the pecans remain on the ground for a few days to a week before harvesting them. Some varieties may require more time to dry out.

“Right now, some of these nuts are probably around 30 percent moisture as they come off the tree. They were open and the kernels were filled but they weren’t fully mature. Laying on the ground, they should dry out and mature and that moisture will drop,” Wells said.

In areas less severely hit by the storm, growers with trees that are still standing will be able to harvest a lot of those nuts, Wells said.

“They’ll probably have to run over some (of the nuts) and get real creative on how to get around all that debris without damaging too many nuts,” he said.

Wells advises growers to report to their local U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) office as soon as possible to begin cleanup for the Emergency Conservation Program. The process involves taking photos of the damage in each orchard and signing a waiver to begin cleanup. Growers should not burn debris until a FSA representative has seen and assessed the damage.

Some growers will no longer continue their pecan operations. Cohen says there’s only one way for him and his brother, Rob, to get through this catastrophic event.

“You just got to pray and you’ll see your way through it,” Cohen said.