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Pecan Production Drops 33 percent In 2006

TULSA, Okla. (AP) The government is predicting a 33 percent drop in pecan production in Oklahoma this year, but some experts believe the crop could be even smaller.

Oklahoma ranks fifth nationally in pecan production and recorded a record crop of 63 million pounds in 1999. Pecan growers harvested about 20 million pounds last year.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture says Oklahoma will produce 14 million pounds of pecans this year. The harvest could be as low as only 8 million to 10 million pounds.

Drought, bugs, animals and high fuel prices plagued producers, which means higher prices for shoppers.

``Someone said to me one time: 'The pecan crop is kind of like a high school football team. You take what you can get and hope for better next year','' said Robert Schoenecke, president of the Oklahoma Pecan Growers Association. ``That's kind of where we're at.''

Tulsa County has 5,470 acreages of pecans, highest in the state, followed by Okmulgee County with 5,232, according to the USDA.

Nationally, pecan production will be 190 million pounds, down 5 percent from October's outlook and 32 percent below last year, the USDA said. Oklahoma's drop in production represents 55 percent of the national decline.

Consumer demand for pecans has been edging up in recent years. More pecans are being eaten, per person, than at any time since the mid-1980s, the Oklahoma association says. That means grower prices will likely increase slowly, but steadily, in the future.

Prices paid to growers have ranged from 84 cents to $1.01 a pound, and improved varieties were running $1.42 to $1.60 a pound.

It's normal for pecan production to rise and fall in yearly cycles, but the situation has been worse in 2006.

This year's drought, and unseasonably warm weather this fall, hammered the state's pecan trees, leading to a premature drop of shells. The pecans that were harvested have been smaller, sometimes with less meat in them.

Some farmers say pecan trees in northeastern Oklahoma have fared better than in other regions of the state.

``Trees were stressed pretty hard in the dry weather, and they just shut down toward the end of the season,'' Schoenecke said. ``A lot of people said the pecans were there, but they didn't open up. They didn't finish.''

Another problem, farmers said, was voracious birds and squirrels munching on pecans after the drought wiped out other food sources.

A squirrel can eat up to 50 pounds of pecans a year. Crows can eat 45 pounds, and blue jays 35 pounds.

Consequently, pecan farmers carry 12-gauge shotguns in their trucks to control squirrels, or set up scarecrows, traps, propane cannons, or scare-eye balloons to ward off birds. The devices must be moved around frequently so animals don't catch on.

``The squirrels are just horrendous. I've never seen a crop of squirrels like we have,'' said Paul Hudson, who owns Mission Ridge Farms in Bixby. ``I've got a neighbor with three pecan trees, and she's shot 32 squirrels in her yard this year.''

According to Hudson, pecan weevils also caused significant damage this year on some farms. The insects come out of the ground after it rains, lay an egg in pecan shells, and a white worm emerges that eats the meat inside.

Hudson blames late-summer rains near Bixby for the proliferation of weevils, whose damage can lead to bitter-tasting kernels and dissatisfied customers.
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