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Professor Lenny Wells, UGA Dept. of Horticulture, shares history of Georgia pecans
Lenny Wells
Lenny Wells

Professor Lenny Wells of the UGA Department of Horticulture is renowned for his knowledge of the history of pecans and their production in Georgia. He spoke to Glennville Rotarians at their Wednesday, August 9, 2023, meeting held at the Glennville Garden Club Center.

He commented that currently the 15 states that grow pecans stretch from New Mexico to California and then as far north as Kansas. The native range of the pecan begins near Oaxaca, Mexico, and runs north into Texas and along the Mississippi River and its tributaries as far as Iowa.

Wells explained that the shapes and sizes vary with the variety of pecans and over the years the varieties selected depend on yield, quality, and disease control, with pecan trees today planted more closely than years ago in older orchards.

The early history of the pecan began with the Spanish explorer, Cabeza de Vaca, who was captured by an Indian tribe in Texas when he was on an ill-fated expedition looking for the Rio Grande. While kept as a prisoner by the Indians for several years, he learned about the pecan and how these nuts were crucial to the Indians’ survival.

“President George Washington planted 25 ‘Mississippi nuts’ in 1775 and was known to have kept pecans in his coat pocket for snacking. Also, in the 1790s, Thomas Jefferson made several pecan plantings at Monticello,” said Wells.

“Andre Michaux, a French botanist and explorer, in the late 18th/early 19th century, encountered pecan nuts in Kentucky in 1784. He believed the pecan would likely be more rapidly adapted to commercial production in the east if it was grafted onto black walnut, which he presumed would speed up the tree’s growth; yet, this did not happen, but foretold the benefits of grafting for propagation,” said Wells.

The birth of the modern pecan industry can be traced to Dr. Abner Landrum in the early 1800s and Antoine of Oak Alley Plantation in the 1840s, the latter who first successfully grafted 16 pecan trees.

A marker in St. Mary’s, Georgia, states the “first pecan trees grown here about 1840,” and that these were grown from pecan nuts found floating at sea by a sea captain and planted by his wife, although Wells said the impact of that on commercial production is questionable.

However, between 1910-1925, 25,000 acres of pecans were planted in Mitchell and Dougherty counties, and five to ten-acre units were sold and the buyers were told that these trees would begin bearing in just two years and the property owners would be on easy street with the revenue that would flow to them. Sadly, many were convinced of this fallacy and lost money, especially devastating during the Depression years.

“Today, Georgia leads the country in pecan production, with over 200,000 acres of pecan trees. The next largest state in terms of acreage is Texas, with 87,000 acres of pecans, and then New Mexico with 52,000 acres. Also, approximately 5000 to 10,000 acres of new orchards were planted annually in Georgia from 2011 to 2018, and the average orchard planting is increasing in size and planting density,” said Wells.

“In 2022, Georgia pecan production was 125 million pounds, which was a value of $205,820,000. The average price was $1.64 lb.,” he said, adding that pecans are costly to produce, considering spraying for diseases, irrigation, weather issues such as hurricanes and tropical storm threats, and low yield some years,” said Wells.

In addition to high costs of production, other factors have placed the pecan industry at a crossroads, such as tariffs, struggling economy, low domestic demand, stored supply, and now the South Africa crop,” he said. Although the U.S. is the top pecan producer in the world, Mexico is increasing its production, and South Africa has become the number three producer in the world.

“For Georgia pecans to compete, we need scab resistance and yield volume in the 1500 to 2000 lbs. range, and we can’t have consistent heavy yield without managing the crop load to an extent,” said Wells. He commented that the Avalon variety is one of the top producers along with its disease resistance. He commented favorably on the Lakota and Excel varieties for their high production compared to Desirable, which can mean twice the profits.

“Hedge pruning has been a favorable tool for sustainability, which has led to increased nut size and quality, better tree water use efficiency, better spray coverage, and reduced crop damage, too,” Wells added, stating that 60 percent less wind damage is provided by hedge pruning.

His comments ended with questions from Rotarians to Professor Wells, who is the expert in Georgia on pecan production, with his vast knowledge and experience as a pecan horticulturist.

If you are interested in attending any Rotary Club meetings or other future meetings, please call Glennville Rotary Club President Joe Sikes at 912-237-0248 or Membership Chair Pam Waters at 912-237-0248.