Andy Nelson, Markets Editor
Andy Nelson, Markets Editor

Last fall I had one of the best desserts of my life. The main ingredient in it was pecans and, not surprisingly, I had to venture south of Kansas City to find it.

(For those of you making your way to Bentonville, it’s the pecan cobbler at War Eagle Mill in Rogers, Ark., a few miles east of Wal-Mart HQ.)

I’ve had decent pecan pie in the North, but there’s something about the South that makes pecans peak.

No surprise about what that something is, of course: most pecans are still grown in Georgia and other states in the South.

Kind of like if you want the best barbecue, a city with the nickname of Cowtown might not be the worst place to start.

(Although, after bragging about the Chiefs in my last column, you’d think I would have learned my lesson about puffing out my chest about KC.)

To me, pecans are right up there with Rhett and Scarlett, NASCAR and Vidalias when it comes to icons of the South.

It came as something of a surprise, therefore, to learn about where most U.S. pecans are winding up these days. Suffice it to say the pecan cobbler at War Eagle Mill and the countless other delights at restaurants throughout the South are taking a tiny fraction of them.

The lion’s share are going to ... China.

That’s right, that gargantuan semi-communist place on the other side of the globe renowned for its stock cars, Vidalia festivals and Rhett and Scarlett Halloween costumes.

Hot commodity

Turns out the reason the U.S. and the South in particular dominate pecan production is the very reason China and many other export markets want them so badly, Randy Hudson, president of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association, vice president of the National Pecan Growers Council and president of Ocilla, Ga.-based Hudson Pecan Co., told me recently.

Namely, they don’t grow them over there — or pretty much anywhere else on the other side of either pond, for that matter.

South of the border from the U.S., however, is a different matter.

“There’s some pecan production in Israel, but the U.S. and Mexico are the biggest,” Hudson said.

U.S. pecan production could double in the next decade as new trees come into production, but Mexican production also is increasing at dizzying rates, he said.

My assumption was always that pretty much whatever China set its mind to grow, it would — and would be the world production leader about a blink of the eye later.

But at least for now, China’s homegrown version of the pecan is the hickory. The Chinese love it, but it’s smaller and contains far less meat than a pecan.

Interestingly, by shipping so many pecans to China, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and — the U.S. industry hopes — India, we here in the states may learn a new trick or two about how to prepare pecans, Hudson said.

Unlike in the U.S., in China, pecans are roasted while they’re still in the shell. When consumers buy them, they’re still in the shell but typically already roasted.

That practice hasn’t caught on yet in the U.S., Hudson said, but who knows? Maybe the next time I’m in Arkansas, War Eagle Mill will have two versions of the pecan cobbler — one printed in English on the menu, the other in Mandarin.

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