There isn’t much a true Southerner likes more than a sweet, gooey slice of pecan pie. Thanks to Georgia’s hardworking pecan growers, consumers can enjoy the iconic dessert – and much more – with some of the best nuts in the country.
Georgia has been the leader in U.S. pecan supply since the late 1800s, and today, the state produces about a third of what the nation uses. In 2014 alone, Georgia produced 73 million pounds of the nutritious nut, with a production value of $166.1 million.
Consumers across the country have loved Georgia pecans for years, but recently, they’ve gained international attention as well.
Pecans Across the Globe
“Since my dad has been in business, the focus on exports has increased dramatically,” says R.G. Lamar of Lamar Pecan Co. in Hawkinsville. “From the ‘70s until the ‘90s, the industry saw modest growth in exports.”
He goes on to say that beginning in the early 2000s, the Chinese snack industry opened an incredible new market for in-shell pecans, and exports grew from roughly 100,000 pounds in 2000 to a peak of 100 million pounds in 2012.
Lamar Pecan Co. is one of the largest pecan farms in the state, managing about 2,300 acres of pecan trees. R.G. works with his dad, Bob, and stepbrother, Grant, to produce in-shell and shelled pecans for wholesale to domestic and international markets. Since the late 2000s, the company has been focusing on exports to China, which has become a major market for Georgia pecans.
“Nearly all of our product goes to the Hong Kong port,” R.G. Lamar says. “We export about half our crop in any given year, so anywhere from 1 to 2 million pounds.”
He says that compared to other commodities, pecans are relatively easy to export.
“They’re cheaper and safer. We get the moisture down below 5 percent, and then put them in a non-refrigerated container. The voyage is 30 to 40 days, but we’ve never had any issues with product spoilage or mold.”
Another family business, South Georgia Pecan Company in Valdosta was founded in 1913, and has grown substantially over the past decade into a more retail-focused business, offering raw pecans as well as pecan snacks, nut mixes and more.
Jeff Worn, who runs the business with his father, agrees with Lamar that an appetite for pecans in China began around2005, after other commodities like almonds and walnuts became high-demand products. A big reason for this push, he says, is the trend of eating fresh, natural and healthy.
“The millennial shift isn’t just happening in the U.S.,” Worn says. “When you go to the store, there’s a good chance you’re now looking for foods with as little ingredients as possible. The biggest thing going for pecans is that you don’t have to do anything to them. Eighty percent of the public thinks the way to eat them is in a pie or praline – they don’t realize how nutritious pecans are.”
China is also a big customer for the Peach State because of the quality and timing of Georgia’s pecan crop.
“Our pecans are harvested much earlier than pecans out in Arizona or the West, and because we have a lot of moisture, our pecans are a very good size,” Worn says.
In addition to China, South Georgia Pecan Co. exports pecan kernels (what consumers normally buy at the grocery store) to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the European Union.
As for the future of Georgia pecans, Lamar says the national industry has drafted a federal marketing order and is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help enact it, with a goal of promoting pecans on another level and expanding export efforts.
“Georgia growers have been very progressive in thinking about the marketing orders, and many of our growers are leading the way,” he says.