Georgia is by far the No. 1 pecan-producing state, rolling out 110 million pounds a year.
South Carolina is ninth among the 14 states that grow pecans, but cracks only 3 million pounds a year.
Clemson Cooperative Extension Service horticulturist Mark Arena would love to narrow the gap, and he’s part of a long-term project that could do that.
Clemson University plans to renovate a near-forgotten 5-acre pecan grove, one Arena sees as a potential outdoor educational laboratory that will encourage pecan farming.
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The orchard, near Clemson University’s main northeast entrance, will soon be used to train students in the latest techniques in producing an overlooked food crop.
“The orchard will mainly focus on commercial growers, but we’ll have programs to support backyard growers as well,” Arena said.
The outdoor classrooms will be designed to raise interest and production throughout the next century. Well-maintained pecan trees often produce past age 100 and can bear fruit for more than 200 years.
“It’s more about the health of the tree,” Arena said. “Overall, trees that are in the range of 25 to 75 years old probably have the highest output levels. Also, new advancements are being discovered for higher output.”
While South Carolina’s climate is right, its production is hindered by a slow return on farmer investment.
“It takes approximately 15 years for pecan trees to begin bearing to the point that a grower can start to recover the investment,” Arena said. “It’s a long-term commitment. Our job is to help growers maximize their orchards’ existing potential and to plan judiciously for the future.”
The renovated orchard in Clemson will provide the setting for programs in cover planting, pruning, irrigation and the identification and control of insects and diseases.
The idea for the educational orchard began in the remnants of the existing grove near the state Highway 93 campus entrance. Arena and Paul Minerva of the university’s landscape services unit concluded that many of the trees in that shady spot were not in a favorable condition for pecan production.
“Unfortunately, when you do not manage pecan trees for production, they typically decline over time, and the cost associated with bringing them back to a productive state is too great,” Arena said, adding that some of the varieties at the grove are no longer in commercial use.
“Some of these have declined to the point they have become hazardous to pedestrian traffic,” he said.
About one-third of the old trees will be replaced, Arena said. Grant money will help pay for site preparation and planting, school officials said.
“Kite Hill is a prominent location. It will be the first thing many people see when they come to campus,” Arena said.
He hopes the new orchard will become “an evaluation site for new varieties to increase pecan production,” he said.
“It all comes down to the number of trees and how much they produce,” Arena said about the state’s annual production. “I believe South Carolina has several areas fitting for pecan production. Sandy loam soil with moist soils is their preferred habitat.”
Weather is another big factor. South Carolina’s typically dry summers are ideal. But the weather in 2013 wasn’t typical.
“This past year, with over 75 days of rain, created high disease pressure and low nut production for many,” Arena said. “The biggest challenge is alternate bearing, which means pecans produce heavily in one year and the following year is a light year in terms of pounds of nuts. Also, certain varieties are more disease-resistant than others.”
Arena hopes to plant new trees this fall, but spring 2015 might be the more likely planting date.
“The cost of getting water to the site and the permit process caught us off guard. … Plus we are hoping to improve the soil at the site with cover crops and compost,” said Arena, who was born on a farm in New Jersey and earned a master’s degree in plant science at the University of Tennessee.
He became a Clemson Extension agent in 1997 but didn’t know about the 5-acre grove when he transferred to the Upstate from Charleston in March.
Arena learned of the old grove through Paul Minerva of the university’s facilities and landscape services. That led to a meeting with Barry Anderson of Clemson’s campus planning and design, who in 2002 had designated the orchard as part of the master plan for the Clemson campus.
“If all goes as planned, their vision will become a reality,” Arena said.
The United States produces more than 80 percent of the world’s pecans, and the nut has in recent years found a new market in Asia, where it is soaked in flavored syrups. Chinese demand has pushed United States pecan prices to the neighborhood of $9 a pound, sparking renewed interest in the crop.