In California, the pecan is the ‘other tree nut’ in a deciduous family heavily dominated by almonds, walnuts, and pistachios.

The pecan, Carya illinoinensis, is grown on about 4,000 acres in the Golden State; shadowed by the 1.1 million acres of the Big Three nuts which blanket the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys.

The pecan industry is the ‘comeback kid’ after its almost inevitable financial ruin 15 years ago. Technological advances, improved crop management, and strong leadership rallied the pecan industry back into the black ink column.

“We’re back making money again growing pecans,” says California pecan grower Brian Blain of Visalia.

Blain owns and operates Blain Farms, the state’s largest pecan grower with about 800 acres in Kern, Tulare, and Fresno counties. Blain and his sons Brody and Barrett also operate Atlas World Food, a processing company which packs and ships about 80 percent of the statewide pecan crop. The nuts are sold inshell, cracked, and shelled.

Blain also dons a hat as a founding director of the California Pecan Growers Association.

Statewide, the California pecan production belt is a narrow stretch which reaches from the Chico-Orland area in the Sacramento Valley down to Bakersfield in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Blain shared the California pecan industry’s rise and fall - and rise again - during the 2013 Arizona Pecan Growers Association annual meeting in Tucson this fall.

The first commercial pecan trees were planted in California in the 1960s with most additional plantings in the 70’s and early 80’s. Like any newbie crop, the first growers entered the pecan industry with eyes cast on lucrative financial potential.

“The California pecan industry thought it could do no wrong,” Blain said. “We were getting high prices. Growing pecans was a way to make good money.”

Early-planted pecan trees grew extremely well in California soils and Mediterranean climate. At fourth leaf, yields totaled several hundred pounds per acre. At eighth-leaf, yields topped one ton per acre with a 62 percent in-shell kernel yield. 

Suddenly, the honeymoon was over.

“Ignorance is bliss,” Blain told the pecan audience. “The California pecan industry’s big decline began.”

Pecan yields shriveled from 2,000-pounds-plus per acre in 1990 to about 500-pounds-per-acre around 1995; a 400-plus percent yield reduction in five years.

“The yield average just kept falling and falling.”

The blame finger was pointed at two major production mistakes.

Two major mistakes

First, California pecan growers accustomed to growing walnuts applied walnut production methods to pecans. Second, growers implemented successful management tools used in Mid-South and Southeast pecan groves.

“Growing pecans as walnut trees was a huge mistake. We learned this the hard way,” Blain said. “Production practices which fit well in other pecan areas did not work under the California climate.”

As the hardships unraveled, an extreme case of alternate bearing began in trees 10 years and older.

California growers faced severe infestations of the aphid complex including the yellow pecan aphid, Monelliosis pecanis, and the black margin aphid, Monellia caryella. Growers did not spray enough insecticide.

These aphids feed on the underside of leaves reducing photosynthesis. Large amounts of honeydew are left behind decreasing the leaf’s ability to mature.

To combat the pests, contact foliar insecticide sprays were applied every two to three weeks yet poor control resulted and product resistance followed. The result was a heavy buildup of honeydew which led to extreme cases of sooty mold which was aggravated by California’s lack of rainfall during the summer months.

Leaf analyses confirmed excess leaf temperatures. Leaves were too hot by noon which stopped the ability to store nutrients.

“These issues substantially reduced pecan quality,” Blain told the crowd. “We had difficulty finding buyers for the pecans.”

The trees towered to 50 to 60 feet at 20-years of age and crowded together to shade out the lower limbs. The extreme growth eliminated foliage and fruitwood within the first 15 feet of the tree. A pruning tower was necessary to reach the foliage to obtain petiole samples.

As a result of these many issues, kernel fill resembled the sinking Titanic as the percentage sank from 62 percent to about 50 percent.

Tree variety also contributed the demise. The industry’s initial tree plantings primarily were the successful Wichita variety. Cheyenne and Western Schley were planted as pollinators. In the end, Blain says Cheyenne was a poor choice for California.

Alternate bearing occurred on a tree-by-tree basis. At harvest, several trees in a row might produce 12,000 nuts each. The next tree over might produce a dozen nuts total.

Another factor involved the lack of natural nut drop during the California season. In other pecan-producing regions, two to three distinct nut drops per season was normal. No natural nut drop occurred in California pecan trees. Every nut set on the tree stayed until harvest - even in overloaded trees.

Trees planted in lighter, sandier soils had more problems.

California growers scratched their heads and began pulling out trees. About 25 percent of the trees planted in the ‘70s were removed and replaced with walnuts, almonds, pistachios.

In the late ‘90s, California growers entered survival mode. Production changes slowly launched a return to higher yields, improved nut quality, and profitability.

A tree thinning program was implemented to reduce the nuts per cluster to two to three pecans. Nuts were thinned at the 50-percent nut embryo stage; about one- to two-weeks before shell hardening.

Growers also implemented tree hedging. Blain traveled to Australia to learn more about hedging at Stahmann Farms, the largest pecan producer in the southern hemisphere. Once home, Blain initiated hedging the tree tops and sides of trees in every other middle row every other year.

California growers implemented Temik (Aldicarb) insecticide sprays to decrease the aphid population.

“Temik basically saved the California pecan industry,” Blain explained. “Once aphids were under control, our pecan world changed for the better.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has removed Temik from the market. Blain now uses Admire insecticide with good results.

California pecan turnaround

In addition, Blain altered his flood irrigation program from watering every row to alternate rows.  Under a two-week regime, one row is flooded on Day 1 while the next row is irrigated on Day 7. About five-acre-feet of water is applied annually.

“The bottom line is all trees receive moisture 24-hours-a-day all summer long,” Blain said.

“This has definitely improved tree health.”

Today, Blain Farms is shifting from flood irrigation to sprinklers to reduce water consumption. About half of the water comes from federal, state, and local surface supplies, plus groundwater pumped from wells with the water depth ranging from 100 feet to 400 feet.

These production changes brought Blain’s pecan operation back to profitability. Now, yields regularly exceed 3,000 pounds per acre. Some Wichita trees produce more than 4,500 pounds per acre. Trees grown in well-drained clay loam soil produces a better pecan crop than sandy soil.

The edible kernel percentage has increased from 59 percent to 62 percent. Alternate bearing has fallen to about 10-percent.

The average tree spacing today is 25-feet down the row and 35-feet between the rows.

“The California pecan industry has really turned around,” Blain said.

Blain harvests pecans twice a season with shakers. He began the 2012 crop harvest in early November. The yields average is about 3,000 pounds per acre.

About 80 percent of the California crop is harvested green in the fall with the balance harvested after the first hard freezes of the year.

About 90 percent of California pecans are shipped to Asia, primarily China.

In 2010, the California pecan industry was valued at about $14 million, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

About 50 growers produce pecans in the Golden State. Acreage is expanding about 10 percent annually.

California pecan prices last year averaged about $3 per pound.

cblake@farmpress.com