While the official numbers are not in yet, New Mexico pecan growers are reporting optimistic harvest numbers now that pecan season has wrapped up in nut-studded Doña Ana County.

What was forecast to be a robust 2013 crop estimated at 60 million pounds of in-shell pecans is turning out to exceed just about all expectations. In a straw poll of nut producers last week, most said the pecans harvested this season sold quickly and they estimated there is a 15percent to 18 percent increase over early expectations. If that number holds, it would make this season's 75 million pounds of in-shell nuts the largest since 2007 when 74 million pounds were harvested.

According to a recent report, the larger-than-expected crop comes at a good time for pecan growers across the Southwest.

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Thanks to a robust nationwide 2012 crop harvest of just over 350 million pounds, wholesale nut prices not only dropped but buyers were able to place large amounts of in-shell nuts in cold storage to release throughout the year.

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Pecan production runs on an alternating on-year off-year production cycle, meaning production is up one year and down the next, a growth cycle that is rarely interrupted. While growers across the nation, except in New Mexico, experienced an 'on' production year in 2012, just the opposite was expected for 2013. New Mexico farmers were the only growers in the nation expected to have an on-year for 2013.

Early estimate of the total 2013 nationwide pecan crop harvest was projected to be only around 230 million pounds of in-shell pecans. Retailers reported that by the time the Thanksgiving holiday hit in 2013, just about all the 2012 cold storage reserves had been used up and early 2013 nuts harvested were on grocery shelves in large numbers by Christmas.

The massive harvest in 2012 was not without setbacks, particularly flooding the market resulting in wholesale price drops. The over-supply of in-shell nuts drove both wholesale and retail prices down to a low of around $2 a pound (wholesale) and to $6 to $7 a pound (shelled retail) at some U.S. stores by Christmas of 2012.

In contrast, while cold storage nuts kept prices down the first half of 2013, by the holiday season prices were headed up again because of steady demand and a much smaller expected 2013 crop—but not as high as the peak period of 2011 when wholesale pecans were going for as much as $3.70 a pound wholesale.

In contrast, at the peak of the 2013 holiday buying season, wholesale prices for in-shell pecans ranged from $1.20 a pound for smaller nuts to as high as $3.30 a pound for high meat-yield varieties. The average price per pound fell somewhere in the middle of that range. 

China matters

USDA is reporting pecan demand from China, a major boost to the U.S. export market in recent years, remained high in 2013. Demand from China may have actually grown but Mexican pecan exports increased dramatically to fill the shorter U.S. harvest. Industry experts say Mexican growers can produce a cheaper crop because of lower labor costs and they can be more price-competitive to foreign buyers. U.S. pecans remain in demand, however, because of superior quality and, in some circumstances, high meat yield.

Also competing for the China in-shell demand are South African farmers. Production there has increased significantly in recent years.

In New Mexico, pecan growers say they are optimistic that demand will remain high in the coming years and that New Mexico's production will increase steadily, provided ample water is available for pecan trees and serious outbreaks of case bearers and disease can be avoided.

While irrigation water from the Rio Grande was very almost non-existent in 2013, Doña Ana County growers were able to water trees adequately with groundwater, at least for the first half of the year. Add to that an exceptionally wet monsoon season in late summer and substantial early fall rains, pecan growers across the region reported that trees flourished and nut quality was guaranteed.

In addition, New Mexico State University Extension specialists report a boom in new tree planting in 2006 has finally paid big dividends for growers as these trees have now fully matured and produced healthy yields for the first time this season, a trend that should continue in the years ahead.

No numbers are available yet for the Texas, Oklahoma or Georgia production, but industry experts are reporting Georgia's crop suffered from not only an off production year, but also because many trees were hit hard last year with pecan scab, a disease that can occur when trees receive too much rain.

Georgia is traditionally the nation's highest producer of pecans each year, but with lower production numbers in Texas, usually in the number two spot nationwide, New Mexico, when all the numbers are in, may be crowned the new 'big winner' of the 2013 pecan crop year.

Overall for 2013, industry analysts suggest the total 2013 pecan harvest could be as low as 210 million pounds of in-shell pecans nationwide, an incredibly low number compared to most years over the last decade.