Hurricanes decimate Gulf Coast pecans

Two years worth of highly destructive hurricanes have decimated pecan orchards along Alabama's Gulf Coast.

Yet, that's only half the bad news: Trees located farther north that avoided the worst storm damage have been affected by other stress factors, resulting in nuts that are either of poor quality or entirely worthless.

As if to add insult to injury, Mother Nature struck when pecan trees were especially vulnerable to her effects.

“Like many other crops, pecan trees have on and off years,” according to William Goff, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System pecan specialist and Auburn University professor of horticulture.

This year happened to be one of the on years when “the crop load is heavy and trees are under a great deal of stress trying to develop the nuts.”

Add additional stress, Goff says, and the trees are prone to failure. The end result is a problem known as sticktights, a condition in which the “shucks fail to open and the kernels don't develop.”

A host of other factors contribute to these stresses, Goff says, particularly scab and other diseases.

“Exceptionally wet conditions in June and July created an environment for serious disease problems,” he says. “The nuts were attacked directly, though leaves and nuts were also affected, which reduced the trees' ability to manufacture foods.”

Complicating the problem was a serious outbreak of aphids, mites and webworms, all of which attack foliage. Foliage damage undermines the tree's photosynthesis ability, resulting in pecans that can't manufacture carbohydrates in sufficient amounts to fill the nuts.

Too much water, followed with not enough water also played a role, Goff says.

“The rainy June and July period occurred as pecans developed size, so the nuts were large and demanded even more energy,” he says.

Dry weather followed in late August through early October, just as this large crop of big pecans needed water to fill the kernels — a factor that added even more stress.

Overcrowding also played a role, Goff says. Pecans need plenty of sunlight and lots of room for root growth. However if more than 50 percent of the area within a group of trees is crowded out by the canopy, pecan production suffers.

With all of this in mind, what can growers to ensure healthier trees and high-quality pecans?

The foremost safeguard, Goff says, is replanting with better cultivars.

Fortunately for growers, there are several new, pest-resistant varieties available.

Varieties include ‘Gafford’, ‘Excel’, ‘Carter’, ‘McMillan’ and ‘Kanza’. Moreover, as Goff stresses, “younger trees withstand stress better, so replanting the right young trees reinvigorates the orchard as well as improving the varieties and pest resistance.”

For information about these new cultivars, visit the Alabama Pecan Growers Web site:

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