China is hungry for American pecans and other American tree nuts, such as almonds and walnuts. The export market for U.S. farmers has grown from $77 million in 2000 to over a billion dollars in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
When it comes to pecans, "some of them wind up in a couple of candy places here in Georgia, but I would say 60 percent of ours are shipped overseas," says Thomas L. Mason, a pecan farmer in Houston County, Georgia.
Mason, who is also chairman of the Georgia Pecan Commission, is grateful. He's even been to China a couple of times and welcomed Chinese businessmen to his farm. But he wants to see more American demand for his crop.
"There's a lot of people who feel like a pecan is a Southern speciality item. We got off an airplane one day and a guy asked us what we do, and we told him we grow pecans, and he said, 'What's that?'"
Marketing of pecans is all over the place. States, farms and companies do their own thing.
There's "Pecans: America's Nut" and "Georgia Pecans: The AntioxiNUT."
Mason and other farmers and shellers want a unified campaign to promote pecans. To do that, they're pushing for the creation of what's known as a federal marketing order.
Basically, farmers would pay an assessment, based on the size of their crop. That money could be be used for advertising and marketing, as well as other things, like researching new products.
Pecan milk, anyone?
"The heart of a federal marketing order makes sense," says Michael Swanson, chief agricultural economist at Wells Fargo. "When things are incoherent or inconsistent to start with, then you have real problems. What happens though is, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details."
Those pushing for the pecan marketing order point to almond growers in California, who've had their own since the 1950s.
Almonds are now the No. 1 tree nut, a $6 billion crop. Orders are in place for a whole host of other agricultural commodities, too. But Swanson says better marketing doesn't always lead to growth.
"Obviously, when you make an effort to bring up product awareness, it improves people's impressions," he says. "But the question is, how do you quantify that impact? That's almost an impossibility. You can always get a number, but it's not going to be a very good number."
The marketing order will require approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which held hearings on the matter in Tifton, Georgia, last month. If it signs off, major pecan growers would also have to approve it in a referendum. If they do, there's the question of what a big, united marketing campaign would look like.
Ad guru Bryan Mattimore's company, Growth Engine, has come up with campaigns for Ocean Spray cranberries and Silk almond milk. His suggestion for pecans? "With a pecan, you can can!"
"When you have a jingle, that can give you extra memorability, obviously, and you can break through," he says. "And you can find people saying 'You know, with a pecan you can can!' And of course, the other virtue of that particular tagline is that you can fill it in with any particular claim you want and target that claim,"
Farmer Thomas L. Mason has a simpler slogan.
"Eat more pecans!" he says with a laugh.
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