(Photo by Michelle Felter, Staff)
BENTON -- When the remnants of Hurricane Ike ripped through the area in the fall, it knocked off large numbers of pecans locally. But the crop fared better than expected, and one local retailer that cracks and shells the nuts is backed up, with the biggest demand ever.
"It's clearly a bigger crop," said David Diebold, owner of Diebold Orchards in Benton. "I don't know if it's the atmosphere or what."
Diebold estimated between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds of pecans are being processed there daily -- and his employees are logging long hours to get all the work done.
"We're probably averaging (cracking pecans) close to 20 hours a day since the day after Thanksgiving," said Diebold, adding employees work through the night.
In fact, due to the extra demand, Diebold Orchards recently purchased extra machinery.
And the crop could be even bigger, according to another local retailer that cracks and shells pecans.
"People are not picking them up," said Ronnie Tatum, owner of Tatum's Nursery in East Prairie. "But if people would pick them up and have them processed, we'd have a heck of a year."
Tatum didn't report the same demand as Diebold. And there are a few reasons why there are good pecans lying on the ground, said Tatum.
"Most of the people that picked up pecans are dying off," he said. Since there is time and work involved in picking them up -- and then the time and expense to crack and shell them "it's just not worth it to (a lot of people)," he said.
But pecans laying on the ground aren't an invitation for anyone to pick them up. Tatum reminded people that they must have permission. "We've had to ask people to leave our property," he said.
There also isn't a lot of money to be made, said Tatum. In southern states, pecans are harvested the same fashion row crops are locally, so those can be put out more cheaply. "There's nowhere to sell them, and that's the biggest problem," Tatum said.
Another factor that left the crop smaller than it would have been were the high winds that came through the area in September as remnants of Hurricane Ike.
"The trees were loaded up this year. If we would have gotten everything we knocked off, we would have had twice what we have now," said Jeff House, agronomy specialist for the New Madrid County University of Missouri Extension in New Madrid County, who also has pecan trees on his property. "But when the hurricane came through it knocked off pecans by the bucket loads. They fell like ball bearings."
House said he and others were unable to see how many pecans remained on the trees. So the 400 pounds he has yielded so far was a surprise.
"I'm still pleased with my pecan crop, considering what it went through," said House. "And they're still falling."
House said he and fellow pecan growers were concerned the pecans remaining in the trees would be damaged. "But they made good," he said.
House said it's difficult to estimate a "normal" pecan crop. "They go through a cycle called alternate bearing and don't bear every year," he explained. The crop size can depend on watering, hormones, when frosts and freeze hits and more, he continued.
Diebold said he has also heard several customers comment that their crop would have been bigger had it not been for the harsh winds. But he said he wonders if global warming has anything to do with larger crops.
Due to global warming, there is more carbon dioxide in the air -- the element plants process before giving off oxygen, he explained.
"Maybe the extra (carbon dioxide) is the reason why the crops are better," Diebold said. "I've noticed a number of crops are better than they used to be, such as pumpkins, fruits and even row crops."
Since Diebold Orchards began cracking and shelling pecans about 20 years again, there has been a steady increase. "It seems like the pecan crops keep getting bigger," he said.
That could be due to larger outputs -- or less people who want to go through the work of cracking and shelling their own pecans.
"It saves a tremendous amount of labor," said Diebold. "What we do in 30 minutes may take somebody three or four hours to do themselves."
Diebold did provide a few tips for those who bring in pecans. "If you let them get too dry, they get brittle and the pecans shatter when cracked," he said. So, he suggested keeping them in buckets or bins -- not closed containers or even bags‚ until they are shelled. That also prevents molding.
Diebold also said it's a good idea to store the pecans in a cool places, such as a garage or carport, and have them cracked within a week.
"You can also freeze them in the shell," Diebold said for those who may be time-strapped. "But make sure they are thawed before they are cracked."
And once the pecans have been cracked, they should be dried properly and frozen. "Once they are out of the shell, they can spoil," he said. Someone who isn't familiar with the process can ask staff there for pointers, said Diebold.
Since machines that crack and shell the pecans are based off the diameter of the shell, Diebold advised people keep different sizes separate. A good rule of thumb is to put pecans from different trees in different containers, he said.
"It can just do a better job," he said.