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As walnut prices rise, consumers look to pecans

Marketplace Contributor May 18, 2015
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The water-thirsty nut crops grown in California are getting a lot of attention these days, given that state’s four-year drought.

Take walnuts for example. The drought has affected both supply and quality of this popular nut, and that’s helped double its price over the last few years.  But with increased prices, coupled with declining quality, consumers are looking for alternatives.  

That means farmers are starting to look at other places – and other nuts – to grow. The interest is good news for pecan growers in places like Texas and Georgia, because pecans are a natural substitute for walnuts.

“The applications, particularly when you’re talking about baking, are very similar,” says Dan Zedan of Nature’s Finest Foods, which specializes in marketing tree nuts.

Aside from the obvious differences – different nuts, different trees – there’s one key distinction between the two: where the nuts are grown. Pecans are grown in a handful of states and can flourish in a variety of climates. Walnuts, on the other hand, need arid conditions to thrive and are grown almost exclusively in California.  

With the price of walnuts on the uptick, Zedans says, “We’ve seen a significant shift in consumption of pecans.”

Zedan says confectioners and bakers have always preferred pecans, but up until recently pecans have generally been the more expensive option. The opposite has been true in the last three years.

“[Pecans] have a much better flavor profile, they have a better shelf life, they’re a bit more versatile, and there is a quality perception difference between walnuts and pecans,” Zedan says.

This is all good news for Georgia, which is the top pecan producer in the U.S. Other pecan-producing states like Texas and New Mexico are happy too.

Lenny Wells, a pecan specialist with the University of Georgia, says the pecan industry was booming even before the California drought. Growers, he says, have seen almost a dollar increase per pound in the last few years.

“A lot of that is driven by the export demand for pecans right now, mainly to Asia,” Wells says. “So the economics looks good, and we’ve had a lot of outside interest in the industry.”

With California’s ongoing drought, this interest is showing no signs of letting up.

Wells says he’s even had a couple of calls from California nut growers looking to set up shop in Georgia. 

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