One common question I have received over the years is, “I have these pecan trees and I want to get them back into production, what should I do?” According to Dr. Pete Anderson, UF/IFAS Emeritus Horticulture Specialist, most of Florida’s pecan trees are in orchards that have been either abandoned or neglected. With all these pecan trees around, you may be tempted to think, “If I can get these trees back into production, I can make some extra cash!” However, it is not as simple as it may seem. Many times, the costs and time to get the orchard back to production is more than people want to commit to, because more than likely that orchard has been neglected for a reason!
Most people know to mow and remove competing vegetation, so we will assume you have already done this part. If not, you need to start by investing time in mowing and site preparation.
If you are still thinking you have the time and want to commit the resources to get your orchard into production, where should you begin? Irrigation is where we must start first, because any level of drought stress will significantly affect nut production. You must be able to provide proper consistent irrigation throughout the growing season to get a marketable nut crop each fall. According to the UGA Pecan Management Calendar, bearing trees will need to start out with 576-840 gallons of water per acre per day in spring, and that level increases throughout the growing season to 3600-4200 gallons per acre per day in the late summer and early fall just before harvest time. The ranges in the amount of irrigation required are based on soil type; heavier clay soils will require the lower end of the range and sandy soils will be at the higher end. Rainfall events can also offset irrigation requirements, see the calendar for more details. It is best to make sure the water is delivered through a drip irrigation system. Not meeting the water needs of the tree to these levels will significantly affect the nut quality and yield.
The next major management concern you need to address is fungicide application to trees. Those older abandoned pecan trees are probably from stock now known to be high input trees with high susceptibility to pecan scab. You will spend more time and money in management of these older trees than you might have anticipated. Older varieties of pecan trees will require more frequent fungicide treatments to produce ah high yielding and high quality crop. Fungicide treatments can be at least 12% of your anticipated production costs for the year. As little as 25% scab on shucks can have a drastic impact on production.
Another variable to get your orchard bearing a good crop is fertilization. It is important that you take soil samples in the winter every year to know what level of fertilization is needed for the following production season. Knowing your fertilizer needs, you should fertilize bearing trees at a rate of two to four pounds of recommended fertilizer per inch of trunk diameter. Two applications should be made, one in February and one in June. Also, about 56-84 days after bud break, typically around the end of June or early July, leaf samples should be collected and sent in for testing to determine if there are nutrient deficiencies. You need to obtain about 75 pairs of middle leaflets from the terminal growth. Send samples and the submission form to the University of Florida Soil Testing Laboratory. Soils in the Southeastern US are not rich in all the nutrients pecan trees need, so it is vitally important to provide deficient nutrients in fertilizer applications.
You will also need to scout and manage for other diseases and pests. Again, you will need to commit time to properly scout your orchard throughout the production year, assessing trees for any pests or diseases present that will adversely affect production. Insects and diseases come and go throughout the production cycle, so it is handy to know which pests and diseases you are looking for at a given point from spring to fall. UGA’s Pecan Management Calendar provides an overview of the common insects and diseases to be watching out for each month.
Replacing Missing Trees
If there are skips in the orchard from dead or diseased trees, it is recommended that you plant low input varieties between the existing older pecan trees. Expect seven to eight years of growth before these trees will begin bearing a nut crop. After which, you could begin to transition by slowly removing the older high input varieties. This will allow you to maximize your profit while decreasing input costs. Also, the nuts produced by older trees may not be the most desirable for the market today. According to Andrew Sawyer, Area Pecan Agent for UGA Extension, “Pecans are suffering from major competition from Mexico, hurricanes, little domestic marketing, and lack of in-shell market to East Asia.” Which means you already have a tough market. You may be better served to create a direct farm to consumer market to maximize profit.
Before determining if you want to get an abandoned orchard back into production, it is best to work out a crop budget to see if it is even worth your time and investment. UGA Extension has a pecan crop budget tool that can assist with this. Contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office for assistance with putting together your crop budget and making that determination of profitability. All of these factors make it challenging to get an older neglected orchard back in production, but with dedication, determination, and luck, you should be able to produce a serviceable nut crop for market, but likely not that easy profit you daydreamed about.