A breeze is blowing through storm-beaten pecan trees in Ben Littlepage's 300-acre orchard near Colfax, La. The trees are almost leafless, and there's about a handful of pecans left on one very large native tree.
Littlepage, like many Louisiana pecan growers, is left with making a decision on whether or not to harvest what's left of his 2005 crop.
Many pecan orchards were devastated when both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita slammed into Louisiana less than a month apart. Heavy winds and rain ripped through the trees, snapping limbs and throwing pecans to the ground where they rot.
Littlepage estimates his crop loss to be 75 percent to 90 percent. That compares to a statewide survey of growers by the LSU AgCenter, which revealed estimates of crop loss ranging from 15 percent to 90 percent.
“The hurricanes came about three weeks too early,” Littlepage said. “The nuts hadn't filled out yet and, from what I can see, there's nothing there to salvage. I don't think it would be very feasible to harvest what crop is left.”
Littlepage has been growing pecans since the 1940s. He grows several varieties, including Candy, which is an early harvest variety.
“My Candies weren't even filled out yet,” he said. “It's just a big mess.”
Littlepage didn't have an estimate (Oct. 6) as to just how much tree damage his orchard suffered, but he said it was substantial. Leaves were blown off, and the tops of many trees were snapped. All of that creates problems for next year's crop.
“Photosynthesis in the trees is being impeded,” Littlepage said. “The trees aren't storing food so they can grow for next year.
“This makes two strikes against us. Now we're left wondering if we should fertilize for next year's crop, or should we just forget about it? Will next year's crop also be a failure?”
LSU AgCenter horticulturist Charles Graham, however, said many of the Louisiana pecan growers he's talked to are trying to prepare for next year.
“It's still a little early to tell just how much damage has been done to the trees,” Graham said. “In addition to the pecans being blown off the trees, limb breakage is another problem growers are facing.
“But many of the growers I've talked to have said they're cleaning up their orchards so that they can get ready for next year and do the best they can.”
Crop losses were experienced by pecan growers all over the state. Hurricane Katrina came in from Gulf of Mexico and crossed the southeastern portion of Louisiana. Then Hurricane Rita struck southwest Louisiana and left damage across much of the state.
According to Graham, preliminary reports show losses of pecans, mostly in home orchards, of 15 percent to 35 percent in the southwestern region of the state. Losses in commercial and home orchards in southeastern Louisiana are estimated to be 50 percent to 80 percent.
Elsewhere around the state, commercial growers in the northeastern region reported 5 percent to 80 percent crop loss, and growers in the northwestern region reported crop losses of 25 percent to 90 percent.
“The crop losses not only varied from region to region but also depended on pecan cultivars being grown,” Graham said.
Pecan crop losses are projected to be from $4.8 million to $6.2 million, according to a survey conducted by Graham. Current wholesale market value is $1.85 per pound for the highest quality pecans, $1.30 per pound for good quality improved pecans and $1 per pound for native pecans.
In Louisiana, the pecan industry consists of about 26,000 acres of home and commercial orchards. Louisiana growers produce an average of 14 million pounds of in-shell pecans each season. Harvest in the state usually runs from September through December.
A. Denise Coolman writes for the LSU AgCenter (318-366-1477 or [email protected]).