In the Orchard with Blair Krebs, Executive Director of the Texas Pecan Growers Association + Publisher of Pecan South

Smart Apply’s very first customer in Georgia was a pecan grower named Tim Sikes. He was poking around YouTube when he clicked on a video on Smart Apply’s precision spraying system. Tim gave us a call, added a Smart Apply to his Nelson Hardie air blast sprayer and got down to business. Four years later, he’s still spraying with Smart Apply and so are many of his pecan growing friends. See Tim’s video here.

Wanting to dig deeper into the pecan industry, we recently caught up with Blair Krebs, a former city girl turned pecan advocate. For nearly 20 years, Blair has worked with the Texas Pecan Growers Association, the last six-plus years as executive director. Additionally, she is the publisher of Pecan South Magazine, which reaches thousands of growers, wholesalers and processors across the United States. If anyone is an expert on America’s only native tree nut, it’s Blair. Check out our conversation.

SA: How did a city girl from Houston become one of the top advocates for pecan growers?
BK: It was kind of a fluke thing. I met my husband while attending college at Texas A&M. When he went back to school, I had to find a job in College Station, where A&M is located. I saw a job for an associate director of sales and marketing with the Texas Pecan Growers Association, applied and got the job. Twenty years later, I still love it—the marketing, advocacy, education, and research. I don’t sit still well so the job suits me.

SA: Your shared that when you first got the job, you didn’t like pecans.
BK: You weren’t supposed to tell that! (Laughs) My experience with pecans growing up was limited to sweet desserts like pecan pie and candied sweet potatoes with pecans. I wasn’t a big fan of overly sweet foods. Later, I began cooking pecans in more savory dishes, like roasting pecans with chile powder, and fell in love with their natural flavor. The industry is advocating pecans as a healthy snack or protein alternative.

SA: Who is the typical pecan grower?
BK: The U.S. pecan industry is still mostly comprised of family operations. We have a lot of small growers with 100 acres or less who are successful because they’re selling direct to consumers. In central Texas in particular, land values are high, so orchards tend to be smaller. There are still many large growers in the state and all sizes of producers can be successful.  

SA: There seems to be some question about which state grows the most pecans.
BK: The top five states for pecans are Georgia, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and Oklahoma, but the annual production data varies. The USDA reported in January 2024 that New Mexico is the top state with 100 million pounds with Georgia following with 88 million pounds. The reported production in Texas and Oklahoma is low, 24 million and 13 million respectively. I question the accuracy of the numbers for two reasons. Texas and Oklahoma pecan growers sell much of their crops direct to consumer, so I don’t believe these sales are properly accounted for in the USDA’s calculations. Second, El Paso County in Texas alone can produce 20 million pounds of pecans annually. This would mean growers across the rest of the state produce only four million pounds. At the end of the day, what’s important is the U.S. pecan industry is growing.

SA: What are you seeing in the export market?
BK: The export market has been turbulent over the last five to six years. In 2007/2008, China started buying pecans, but when the tariffs went into effect in 2018, the U.S. pecan market was devastated. The American Pecan Council and the industry at large shifted focus to identify new markets.

India has proved to be a hot market for U.S. pecans. A large portion of the population follows a vegetarian diet, so pecans are a good source of protein. The American Pecan Council has hosted groups from India to the U.S. For example, a group came to Dallas and did events with local chefs using pecans. They also toured orchards in multiple states. India is an attractive market for us because of its young population and openness to Western products. But it will take long term work to develop the market in India, creating the networks. The Chinese market was much faster to develop.

SA: What is the pecan industry doing domestically?
BK: Over the last ten years, domestic consumption of pecans has been 300-320 million pounds annually. Selling direct to consumer is big and growing bigger. There’s also a repositioning of pecans as a healthy snack, but we’re a little behind the other tree nut categories—almonds, pistachios and walnuts—in this category. What’s interesting is many people have an emotional attachment to pecans. They associate them with the holidays and sweet treats. Shifting consumers’ perceptions that pecans are also a healthy snack is a big part of what we’re doing.

It’s exciting is to see how pecan growers are embracing the direct-to-consumer category. We’re seeing more consumer-focused branding, and more exciting packaging such as standup, resealable pouches that consumer equate to snack and gourmet items. This type of packaging also extends the shelf life of pecans, which are not as shelf stable as other nuts. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of direct-to-consumer and healthier options on pecans, which is driving demand for pecans.

Precision spraying pecans

SA: What are the biggest challenges are pecan growers facing? Is it input costs, labor, water, or sustainability issues?
BK: All of the above. The pecan industry is blessed in that more of our harvest is mechanized so labor is not as big an issue as  it is for other crop categories. Input costs are terrible. I don’t know a single grower who is not struggling with costs. Pecan growers are working on developing  sustainability practices such as looking at soil health and more efficient methods of irrigation.

Reducing chemical use is a priority for growers through Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM uses targeted pesticides that protect beneficial insects while killing the “bad” insects. Some are introducing natural tools such as  such as introducing bats to keep insect populations. At the same time, large retailers want more traceability on pecans such as where the nuts are grown, what blocks they’re from, what chemicals used. So there is some external pressure, too.

SA: Pecan growers are also battling some larger pests.
BK: Don’t I know it! My husband and I are just starting a pecan orchard and we have to wrap the young trees, so the deer don’t eat them. Squirrels can also do damage to a crop, but here in Texas and across the South, feral hogs are a huge problem. They literally destroy the land so equipment can’t run through the rows. I’d like to say pecan growers are flattered that everyone and everything loves pecans, but we need to control the wildlife.

SA: You have recently launched a Texas Pecan Innovation Center. Tell us about that.
BK: Sure! The Texas Department of Agriculture has provided funding to the Texas Pecan Growers Association and Tarleton State University to establish a Texas Pecan Innovation Center to support and grow Texas’s pecan industry. We’re not spending the funds on a physical center; instead, we’re investing in projects around market development, research, technology, education, and training. We also want to develop the next generation of growers. A previous grant with the Texas Pecan Growers Association and Texas AgriLife created a series of listening sessions around the state to identify and prioritize needs.  We hope to announce our first project in the next couple of months.

Already there’s a lot of excitement around the center being a hub for innovation. We’ve talked to other organizations that want to invest and collaborate with us.

SA: Are pecan growers open to new technology?
BK: Anything that reduces inputs, reduces labor, that’s obtainable and shows results—that’s the kind of technology pecan growers want to see. People in ag get a lot of technology thrown at them, but there have to be real results. When other pecan growers are using it and benefitting from it, that is what gets growers’ attention.

SA: Sounds like we need to bring Tim Sikes to Texas.
BK: (Smiles)

Smart Apply’s Precision Spray + Data System is used by pecan growers and other nut orchards, vineyards, tree fruit orchards, hop growers, and nurseries around the world to optimize crop protection, reduce chemical and water use, reduce labor, digitally document each spray event, and increase sustainability. If you’d like to start a conversation, email us at Find a Smart Apply dealer near you here.

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