Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Pecan in Your Pie? Market Mechanics, Economics and Globalization

Executive Summary: Pecan pie is not quite apple pie, but it is as American as it comes. The humble pecan in your pecan pie may have a very interesting story to tell of growing up in a hot climate across the border, making it over in crowded containers, and finding its way to your plate through an oligopsony. An interesting tale about globalization. From the desk of A-Great-Story-From-2013-Is-Better-Told-Than-Never. Also, from the desk of Not-Quite-Bourdain-But-It-Will-Do.


Pecan pie is American. Pecans are also American. Mostly. The U.S. is the world's largest pecan producer. A significant quantity of pecans are also grown in Mexico though- in 2012, Mexican pecans were 70% of all U.S. pecan imports by dollar value. Bet you didn't know that. Why would someone in Mexico care to grow pecans?

What follows is a structured account of a perception altering, freewheeling conversation about the humble pecan in your pecan pie:
Where? A random rooftop bar in NYC on a Friday evening.
Who? A friendly Mexican pecan farmer in town, with his brother, to soak in the U.S. Open.

These insights (highlighted below in italics) into pecans from Mexico and the global pecan industry, covering markets, demand, supply, buyers, global trade, a decade long product horizon and a multi-decade pricing perspective, are from a random conversation with a Mexican farmer. Specific annual data points have been added to confirm insights from the one time conversation. Of course, not all aspects of the conversation made it to the blog.


Pecans need hot and dry conditions to grow. They can be grown in regions approximating USDA hardiness zones 5 to 9, provided summers are also hot and humid. Depending on the variety, pecan trees require 205 to 233 frost-free days for the nuts to reach maturity, thus restricting pecan production to southern states in the U.S. Jimenez, Chihuahua in Mexico has the right conditions for it, and is close enough to America for Mexican farmers to nurture a source of revenue in the desert environment.

Other countries producing pecans include Australia, Brazil, Israel, Peru, and South Africa.

Local Operating Conditions and Conditions

Water is key to pecan farming. However, digging wells in the Mexican desert requires licenses. These local conditions and regulation, has directed Mexican farmers toward developing advanced irrigation systems.

Insight: Mexican irrigation systems thus need to be more advanced than those in the U.S.

Jimenez, Chihuahua in Mexico is about 200 miles from the U.S. border in Mexico and also contends with some of the socio-economic problems and strife seen at the U.S.- Mexico border.

Competitive Space

Insight: In 2012, Georgia led the U.S. in pecan production, with production for all pecans (improved varieties and native and seedling). 

Georgia's production reached 100 million pounds, followed by New Mexico at 65 million pounds, Texas at 55 million pounds, Oklahoma at 25 million pounds and Arizona at 20 million pounds. Production was up in each of these states except Georgia.  (NASS 2013)

Insight: China is emerging as a strong buyer of pecans globally and seeks to develop local supply. Mexican farmers were not concerned about potential Chinese supply impacting global suppliers in the medium term, primarily due to the time it takes for pecan trees to mature. 

Insight: Grafted trees reach maturity by the seventh year (seedling trees require another 2-3 years), and most cultivars remain productive for decades when properly managed.


Insight: There are five major buyers in America for pecans in the U.S., who exchange information on pecan supply, quality and pricing. This enhances their buying power in most situations.

In 2012, the United States imported pecans valued at $282.0 million, down slightly from $286.8 million during 2011. Mexico remained the dominant supplier, providing shelled pecans, in-shell pecans and pecan products valued at $200.8 million.

Variability in U.S. production, not U.S. demand, impacts buying power. From 1970 to 1999, imports (shelled basis) ranged from a low of 0.2% (1981) of total U.S. production that year, to a high of 52% (1986).

Insight: Chinese buyers have attempted to gain greater control of the buying process and sought to trade directly with Mexico. However, with the U.S. as the largest market and the largest grower of pecans, the Chinese have not been successful so far. U.S. continues to export significant quantities of pecans to China.

U.S. pecan exports were valued at $486.9 million in 2012, up 30 percent from 2011. Hong Kong remained the primary destination for U.S. in-shell pecan exports, with sales reaching $165.4 million, a 69 percent jump from 2011. Vietnam was the second largest in-shell pecan market, purchasing pecans valued at $67.9 million, a whopping 115 percent increase. Mexican purchases declined in 2012, falling to $34.2 million.  (FAS 2012)

Demand, Market and Price Elasticity

Of tree nut consumption in the United States, pecans rank third behind almonds and English walnuts. Pecan per capita availability has held nearly constant over the past several decades, ranging from 0.38 pounds in 1968 to 0.47 pounds consumed per person in 2010.

Insight: Walnuts and even peanuts function as effective pecan substitutes. This constant demand and access to substitutes creates a narrow price range. At the time of the conversation with the Mexican pecan farmers, suppliers were getting prices at the higher end of a 100 year time frame.

Growing Chinese market demand, continued U.S. buying power and favorable U.S. food export programs have combined to provide the U.S. pecan industry with access to expanding new markets.

2012 data is a great illustration of price elasticity. The 2012 U.S. pecan crop totaled 302.8 million pounds or 151,400 tons, a 12 percent increase from 2011. The value of the 2012 pecan crop decreased 27 percent to $476.8 million. Total crop value declined as grower prices fell, partly because of increased crop size.  (ERS 2013, NASS 2013)

In 2011, average pecan prices dropped to $1.57 per pound, down from 2010 average prices of $2.43 per pound. Average prices also dipped for each of the five major pecan-producing states.  (NASS 2013)

From 1970 to 1999, U.S. average pecan prices ranged from a low of 29.8 cents (1971) per in-shell pound to a high of $1.14 (1992) per in-shell pound for native pecans, and from 35.4 cents (1971) to $1.57 (1992) per in-shell pound for improved pecans. During this same period, U.S. improved pecans averaged 78.2 cents per pound, while native or seedling pecans averaged 49.7 cents per pound an average price difference of 28.5 cents per pound. Caveat- differences in prices from state to state reflect national and local difference in supply and demand, as well as differences in quality, nut meats obtained, and market outlets.

Next time you look at a pecan, and find a wild look in its eye, you can safely assume there is a story to tell.

What do you think?


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