Consumers also reacted favorably to the health benefits of the pecan oil and flour. The oil produced with the OSU method is low in saturated fats and high in heart-healthy unsaturated fatty acids. The flour is gluten free. The NMSU study found that once the participants in the taste test were told of the pecan oil's nutritional values, eight out of 10 people who had previously chosen the olive oil changed their preference to the pecan oil. Ten of the 41 participants ate gluten-free foods and found the pecan flour products to be tasty.

"They said the consistency was like normal wheat bread and that it also had a better flavor than any gluten-free bread they normally eat," Cockerham said.

The researchers acknowledge that there could be a bias among the taste testers because they all hail from New Mexico and are familiar with pecans as a cash crop. Still, the researchers believe the results strongly indicate large consumer interest in pecan oil and flour made with New Mexico pecans using the OSU process. The target retailers would be health food stores and gourmet food outlets.

"We found the market for these products to be quite good," Gorman said. "We interviewed a lot of people. However, you can't buy the pecan oil and flour that uses the OSU method right now because no one is producing it. You can buy pecan oil and flour, but they're not the same quality or grade."

So this points to a huge market opportunity for New Mexico's pecan growers and processors, right? Yes, but not for the foreseeable future.

A facility processing 2 million pounds of pecans into oil and flour would generate total sales of about $9 million in its first year, according to the NMSU study. That number would rise to $15.5 million in the second year of operation. However, to get such a facility up and running would take an initial investment of more than $9 million, Gorman said.

With big bucks virtually falling from pecan trees right now, growers and producers are in no hurry to venture into new markets.

"We are trying to give the producers the means of creating a value-added product for their pecans," Cockerham said. "Right now, the pecan prices are so high that there is really no use in a lot of the producers looking at making the oil and flour, because they are getting a great price for the basic commodity. The China market is huge and it buys the pecans in the shell, so it's minimal processing for the producer right now. That's a really hard thing to overcome."

When the NMSU researchers first began their study, Gorman said a pound of pecan pieces was selling for about $3. When the study was finished a few months later, the price was moving toward $5 per pound. The price for whole halves is even higher, peaking at more than $6.50.

"The pecan producers were very interested in the new process, but it wasn't something they wanted to move forward with just yet, because they're getting such good prices right now," Cockerham said.

Gorman added that while the price of pecans has eased a bit, it's not enough to make a pecan oil and flour processing plant economically feasible. So for the time being, Gorman and his team are keeping their study in their back pockets for the inevitable day when pecan prices fall from the stratosphere.

"As China decides how much it's willing to pay for nuts — plus everybody is planting pecan trees around the world, particularly in Mexico — I expect the price to come down some and stabilize," Gorman said. "Then I think the pecan oil and flour would be a very good value-added business for some of the processers and shellers."

Until then, consumers will have to make due with the pecan oils and meals currently on the market.

"You can't buy our product yet — unless you have $10,000, then I'll sell you a small bottle of what we have left," Gorman said with a laugh.