RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Eighty percent of all pecans eaten in the world are grown in the United States, and Georgia is the country's top producer. In a land known as the Peach State, it is the pecan farmers who are planting thousands of new trees.
Growers are trying to keep up with demand coming from more than 7,000 miles away - that would be, yes, China.
Josephine Bennett from Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.
JOSEPHINE BENNETT: Farmer Trent Mason leans over and fiddles with the irrigation system in his pecan orchard in Fort Valley, Georgia, south of Atlanta.
It's been an exceptionally dry spring and summer, and Mason is trying to keep his trees alive. On one side of the 2,000-acre orchard are 20-year-old trees covered in tiny nuts, and on the other, saplings, planted in January.
Mr. TRENT MASON (Farmer): It's like a little baby. You can see they're already irrigated, so if they weren't, they wouldn't be growing. You have to spray them. You have to put fertilizer. You can see here how we have a herbicide strip already established here, so the weeds aren't competing with the tree. And all of that costs money.
BENNETT: Right now, it's money well spent. In the last three years, pecan prices have doubled.
The Chinese began buying pecans in 2004. Consumption skyrocketed three years later amid a global walnut shortage and record pecan harvest. Since then, consumption's more than doubled.
Grower Randy Hudson was one of the first to go into China in 1999. Back then, the Chinese had no word for pecan.
Mr. RANDY HUDSON (Farmer): They actually called it sean-hirtou, which was the word for being a soft-shelled hickory.
BENNETT: Now the nut has its own name. The Chinese call it pecan gwo.
Mr. HUDSON: They'll roast the pecans. They'll crack them, and then they'll put them into a brine solution to salt roast them in the shell, you know, as the nut is heated, kind of a lot like salt-roasting in-the-shell peanuts.
BENNETT: For years, most pecans were sold domestically, while almond and walnut growers marketed their commodities overseas. Now pecan growers are catching up and expanding into other parts of Asia.
Jeff Worn with the South Georgia Pecan Company just traveled to India, where he served the nut at a food show.
Mr. JEFF WORN (South Georgia Pecan Company): If somebody tried to bring pecan curry over here, how do you think it's going to go over? Probably not very well. So, you've got to be accustomed to their environment. And we were cooking pecans with rice and things like this at the booth, and bell pepper, and, you know, kind of like a saute-type deal. And people really ate it up.
BENNETT: And others in the industry agree. Hilton Segler with the National Pecan Growers Council says with India's burgeoning middle class, that country could prove to be a stronger market than China.
Mr. HILTON SEGLER (National Pecan Growers Council): Three years from now, we'll probably be moving as many pecans - if we can produce them - in India. There's 1.3 billion people in China. There's 1.1 billion people in India.
BENNETT: Segler says right now, pecans are a great investment and more consistent than the stock market. But Trent Mason says it's about time, because for years, farmers just broke even. Between 1960 and 2000, pecan prices remained low.
Mr. MASON: I remember dad saying you could get a Coke and a MoonPie for 25 cents. And now a Coca-Cola is $2 and a MoonPie is what, 50 cents? So that's $2.50. That's a lot of increase when we were staying the same for a while.
BENNETT: Mason says it's going to take growers time to catch up with demand. His new trees won't produce nuts he can sell for about a decade. And with demand exceeding supply, if you like pecans, you'd better get used to the high prices.
For NPR News, I'm Josephine Bennett in Macon, Georgia.
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