China has been the No. 1 importer for the pecan market since 2000, and import levels, in general, have shown a consistent upward trend since that time. Shipments to China accounted for 51 percent in 2017 of all American pecan exports compared to 44 percent in 2016.
In recent years, pecan planting has boomed in China. Aside from the growing appetite for pecans and recent good market prices, pecan production creates a demand for labor and intensive use of the land. Also, pecan is an excellent replacement for poor economic crops. As more than two-thirds of Chinese edible oil depends on imports, the government has encouraged farmers to grow woody oil trees such as walnut, camellia, and pecan, which can grow on slopes and woodlands and won’t occupy the space of other farmland.
Pecan trees were first brought to China in the early 1900s and were planted mainly for timber and street trees in the first several years. In the late 1950s, the first two cultivars ‘Mochou’ and ‘Gulou’ were selected and several more cultivars were released in the following 30 years. However, because of the long waiting period from planting to production and lack of techniques for tree management, pecan planting could not meet growers’ expectations and failed to get them involved. Until 2008, when pecan planting once again became popular in China as more pecans were sold on the market and traditional economic crops needed to be updated again.
In 2017, pecan orchard establishment in China was around 100,000 acres— although most of these are still not yet in full production. The commercial orchards mainly exist in nine provinces of eastern, central and southwestern China including Anhui, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Hunan, Henan, Shandong, Guangxi and Yunnan. Orchards range in size from 1 to 2000 acres and over 90 percent of pecan growers are small farmers with 20 acres or fewer.
Yunnan and Anhui are the two leading pecan-producing provinces, together accounting for 80 percent of pecan planting. Fast growing provinces Anhui and Jiangsu have developed 40,000 acres in 2017 and 2018. Approximately 17 million trees were propagated in 2017 and 2018 in Anhui province. In all, China is expected to have more than 160,000 acres of pecans by 2020 if current planting rates continue.
Overall, pecan production in China is booming, producing over 100 metric tons of pecans in 2016. This production continues to grow, with only a portion of existing orchards currently producing nuts.
Since most of the orchards are newly planted and experienced management is lacking in China, the Chinese pecan industry is still an extremely new industry compared to America’s, which has a long history in pecan production. Usually, the downside to people getting involved in pecan production is the length of time from planting to production. Because of the early production and quicker returns, many growers prefer high-density planting systems which might break even in six to seven years compared to ten to twelve years for traditional systems.
One of our main focuses is to look at how to bring trees into production quicker. The long period from planting to production is a barrier for entry into producing pecans, and so if we can shorten that time through management techniques or planting methods, we can get more people interested in pecans. So, we are doing studies looking at the comprehensive methods for high-density planting systems. One of the long-term studies that we have at the experiment station in Nanjing is an ultra-high density study with different tree shapes and densities. The main goals are to control tree size through modifying training and pruning systems and to encourage the transition from vegetative growth to reproduction. Applying paclobutrazol, pinching new shoots, bending scaffold branches below horizontal, and girdling trunks are all measures to keep trees in a low vigor state and encourage production of fruit buds for the following growing season.
M.W. Smith in Oklahoma carried out a high-density pecan planting experiment in the 1970s which showed excellent production in 8-12 years. That was a good demonstration of the possibilities for China. Also, we have a lot of experience in high-density walnut production (spacing 16.7 by 16.7 feet) which yielded 2,600 pounds and 6,600 pounds per acre in the fifth and seventh year. Some walnut tree management techniques could be applied to a pecan planting system. With the release of precocious, highly disease resistant cultivars and advanced management techniques, pecan growers are more likely to succeed with the high-density production system.
We have also been looking at economic strategies to maximize profit from the very beginning of pecan planting by incorporating other crops into the orchard. Agroforestry systems offer another solution to increase farmers’ profits in the first several years. The established orchards, particularly those with widely spaced trees, are now being interplanted between rows with crops like vegetables, medical plants, grain crops and so on to make an early return. Intercrops such as asparagus, red pepper, peanut, rice, chrysanthemum, tea plant, sweet potato, honeysuckle, wheat, corn, soybean and so on are grown now but not popular yet. Because the price of the intercrop fluctuates and labor costs continue to increase, it has been difficult to offset the cost of orchard establishment as expected. Also, some growers ignore managing the pecan trees while getting involved in intercrops, to the detriment of the trees.
Since pecan is a new industry in China, we face some problems and challenges.
The first challenge the new industry faces is planting design. Most pecan growers seldom develop a detailed plan before planting which leads to a series of problems in the future. Some start too big and soon realize they don’t have enough energy or money to fully develop or maintain their original plan. Some start without getting to know their soil, irrigation, and habits of cultivars. So, pecan specialists should encourage growers to make a detailed plan before starting to avoid future problems.
Over 60 U.S. cultivars have been introduced to China; however, many of them were only numbered and the exact name was not known. Nearly 50 cultivars have been selected by Chinese horticulturists. Due to the lack of information on cultivar characteristics, there are problems in choosing cultivars when establishing an orchard. To address this challenge, a long-term observation of pecan cultivars for pollination type, disease resistance, alternate bearing potential, precocity, harvest date, nut size, and nut quality is being conducted with the objective of evaluating the performance of existing pecan cultivars at various locations in China.
Most nurseries use American pecan nuts from different areas for rootstock, which results in a series of problems. With an improper incompatibility in pecan grafting, the top half of the tree will grow faster than the rootstock, making it top heavy and prone to splitting when branches become laden with nuts and leaves. Also, pecan cultivars may have different growth, fruit quality and production when grown on diverse rootstocks. This is one of the most important factors that lead to different tree performance even though they are grown in the same conditions. So, selecting improved rootstocks adapted to different regions is essential to make them easier and better to grow in a particular environment or situation.
Even now there are not research-based recommendations in China for irrigation and fertilization, two important aspects in pecan production. Almost all pecan growers in China fertilize their pecan trees depending on experiences from other crops. They have not yet realized the importance of tailoring a fertilizer program to pecans.
China has over one-fifth of the world’s population (1.4 billion) and only one-fifteenth of the world’s arable land; that is a huge challenge to feed its people. So, farmland is strictly preserved by a principal law called the Basic Farmland Protection Regulation. Those lands with good irrigation, drainage, and erosion control can only be used to grow major food grains, feed grains, soybeans, and tubers. However, other kinds of food production are not included, especially tree fruits or fish ponds. Most of the trees are grown on terraces, sloped sites, and lands in poor condition which is a big challenge for pecan production. Many orchards mainly depend on hand labor of which the cost continues to increase. Therefore, orchard equipment that is suitable for different areas needs to be developed to improve the efficiency of pecan production.
To address these challenges, the government and research facilities have tried to take some measures. Aside from supplying funding for pecan research programs and encouraging growers to get involved in pecans, a pecan growers association was incorporated as well. In 2016, the Pecan Special Committee of China Chamber of Commerce of Foodstuffs and Native Produce was founded with the objective to develop strategies and to assist pecan growers through education, research and other activities. It is the only organization in China for pecans and has over 400 members from 15 provinces. Pecan specialists and researchers in China are working hard to better service and educate new and existing pecan growers through programs coordinated by the organization.
As pecan is an emerging and fast-growing industry, we really need to learn more from the experience of United States producers and researchers and absorb management technology which can then be adapted to China’s actual conditions to provide technical support for commercial development. At the same time, we actively encourage the expansion of pecan consumption, meeting the growing consumer demand. With these efforts in the association and in research, China hopes to foster its budding pecan industry.