OCILLA, Ga. – It is a meager holiday in the pecan groves of the South, and the pain is stretching to kitchens across the country.
A rare collision of ill-timed rain, marauding animals and a growing love affair between the Chinese middle class and the pecan has resulted in the worst pecan supply in recent memory. As a result, grocery store prices are up by about 30 percent, which caused Thanksgiving bakers to think twice about their menus.
“It’s like the world doesn’t want us to make pralines,” said Anna Butler, 24, a Texas native who lives in New York.
For a pre-Thanksgiving celebration, Butler had planned to show off her Texan roots with a black-bottom pecan pie. But at her favorite market, a pound of shelled pecans cost $15.99.
“That’s a real investment in a pie right there,” she said.
Too much, in fact. She brought a dish of cauliflower, macaroni and cheese instead.
In 2012, the nation’s pecan orchards produced about 302 million pounds of pecans. This year, that number could drop by as much as 35 percent, according to industry officials. In Georgia, the nation’s leading pecan-producing state, the crop is expected to be about half of what it was last year. In South Carolina, some orchards succumbed completely.
The problem began with record rainfall last spring and summer. Pollination became difficult, and the moisture encouraged disease. Pecan growers sprayed their fields in record amounts, but it was not enough to fight off a disease called scab.
In Texas and Oklahoma, it was a summer drought that hurt the trees. Then came autumn’s heavy rain, which made the ground too wet to hold the heavy equipment that shakes nuts from trees and sweeps them up.
As a result, harvesting was sporadic, and the pecan supply was left wide open for feral pigs, which have become quite a problem in Texas, and for squirrels, which are always looking for a free nut.
“The crop faced a lot of wildlife pressure,” said Blair Krebs, associate director of sales and marketing at the Texas Pecan Growers Association.
The bad nut crop has a few other causes, one of which is the cyclical nature of pecans: Typically, if one year is good, the next year is not.
Last year, for example, Texas produced about 65 million pounds of pecans, said Larry Stein, a professor of horticulture at Texas A&M University. Most estimates indicate that this year will bring no more than 35 million pounds.
Then, there is China.
In the mid-2000s, the market for pecans in China began to grow rapidly. China now consumes more than a third of the U.S. pecan crop, a development that followed the country’s inclusion in the World Trade Organization in 2001.
“Before that, they didn’t know what a pecan was,” said Randy Hudson, the owner of Hudson Pecan Co. in Ocilla and a vice president of the National Pecan Growers Council.
Chinese shoppers prefer big varieties with thin shells, with names like Desirables and Stuarts.
“The ones that are real pretty on top of a pecan pie? Most of those have gone to export,” Krebs said.
While that isn’t good news for American bakers, it has alleviated the pain for many farmers. Although the crop is small this year, the price is well over $3 a pound at the wholesale level.
Still, that has not helped the neighborhood pickers in the Deep South who collect “yard nuts” from the pecan trees that grow in backyards from Atlanta to rural Texas.
In a fall ritual, people scoop them up and bring sacks to shelling stands along the road. In many rural regions, “We buy pecans” signs are not hard to find. Gathering yard nuts in Alabama with an eccentric cousin at the start of fruitcake weather was a soul-saving exercise for a young Truman Capote, who wrote about it in his short story “A Christmas Memory.”
But backyard pecan trees and small orchards are not usually sprayed regularly enough to ward off disease.
“People use yard nuts to pay their property taxes,” said Scott Hudson, Hudson’s son and vice president of the family company. “But not this year.”
The great pecan crisis of 2013 is playing out differently in different regions. Parts of New Mexico might have a good crop of high-quality nuts. And some parts of the country just do not care as much about making a pecan pie for the holidays.
Nationally, there were more than twice as many searches for pumpkin pie as for pecan pie, a Google spokeswoman said.
An analysis of data from Google showed that pumpkin was the most searched-for pie variety in states including Alaska, Maine, Montana and South Dakota. People in Vermont were most likely to search for apple pie.
But in the South, where pecan pie had the most searches, bakers were on edge.
Stacey Eames produced more than 200 pies for Thanksgiving at Highland Bakery in Atlanta. She is from Albany, Ga., which is in the middle of 60 miles of the most fertile pecan orchards in the world.
Like many Southern children, she grew up crunching across pecans on her way to school and learned early how to crack them open by taking two in one hand and applying pressure.
The cost of ingredients for Eames’ pecan pies has soared, but she has to keep her prices in line with those of big bakers like Whole Foods and Publix supermarkets. And she can’t skimp on the nuts.
“There’s only so much you can charge for your pie and still be competitive,” she said. “But these pies need to look like, ‘Wow, that’s a pie.’ So you just have to eat that difference.”