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The Enigmatic Pecan: Why So Pricey, And How To Pronounce It?

Nov 8, 2013
Originally published on November 9, 2013 3:08 pm

The price of pecans is going up, up, up, which may mean that if you're planning a pecan pie for Thanksgiving, the time to buy them is now. The reasons behind that escalating price all come down to natural forces: supply and demand and weather.

China can't get enough pecans, according to fourth-generation pecan farmer Randy Hudson. His Hudson Pecan Co. in Ocilla, Ga., ships 80 to 90 percent of its pecans to China. And he suspects a total of 10 to 15 million pounds of pecans, or about 7 percent of U.S. production, will ship to China from the U.S. this year.

The Chinese, Hudson says, are hungry for all kinds of nuts. Their growing economy means they're more willing to pay higher prices, and that's raising prices everywhere.

The demand is also moving faster than the pecans can grow. "You don't just plant pecans; it takes 10 years" from start of cultivation to harvest, Hudson tells All Things Considered's Melissa Block.

Mixed with that, "the most significant thing is the weather," Hudson says. Southern Georgia, where many of the nation's pecan orchards are located, experienced two of the wettest springs and summers on record last year, "creating real issues with diseases."

Pecans are currently about $9 a pound in the U.S. But according to Forbes.com, by late November pecans may get up to $11, even $12 a pound, in grocery stores.

And speaking of pecans, is there a right way to say the word? (There are, after all, several different takes, including pee-kahn, pi-kahn and pee-kan.)

Not really, says Grant Barrett, co-host of A Way with Words, the public radio show about linguistics.

"It's always had a variety of pronunciations," Barrett tells Block. "We find it first 300 years ago in the journals of French and Spanish explorers in the New World. And from the very start spelling and pronunciation did not remain fixed."

A dialect survey on the word pecan showed in the U.S. almost 30 percent say pee-kahn, 21 percent say pi-kahn, while pee-can had only 13 percent.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It's nearly that time of year, time for turkey and dressing and pecan pie. But as you reach for that bag of pecans, you may get sticker shock. Prices are up 20 to 30 percent this year. And part of what's driving those higher pecan prices is soaring demand from China. Well, joining us to help explain the growing appetite for the American nut is Randy Hudson. He's a fourth generation pecan farmer in Ocilla, Georgia, and vice president of the National Pecan Growers Council. Mr. Hudson, welcome.

RANDY HUDSON: Thank you. Good to be here today.

BLOCK: And we should say, you are joining us from your pecan orchard right now. How does the crop look?

HUDSON: Well, I tell you, I'm sitting here on what's got to be the most beautiful 150 acres of pecan in the nation. Beautiful day, fall, crispy air. I tell you, it's just a good day to be alive.

BLOCK: Well, how much of your crop ends up getting sent to China? We mentioned the soaring demand for pecans there.

HUDSON: Well, a significant portion. Between 80 and 90 percent of my crop would end up in China or the Middle East or somewhere other than here in the United States. Demand export-wise is, you know, is exceeding domestic demand. And other folks around the world are willing to pay for them and we'll be glad to give them to them.

BLOCK: Is this true, Mr. Hudson, that your company was one of the first to export pecans to China?

HUDSON: Well, we like to think that we were the first, but I'm sure we weren't. You know, it's always somebody probably beat us there. But in the mid-1990s, pecan prices, because of supply - oversupply, had just really gone in the tanks. And I just really got tired of selling really good pecans for what I thought was less than their true value. So I loaded up a load of pecans and packed my bags and told my wife, I'll see you in three weeks, and headed to China. And this year, we will send, like I said, a significant portion of our crop, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 million pounds.

BLOCK: Ten to 15 million pounds just from your farm, you're saying?

HUDSON: Well, from my farms and from neighbors and from other folks around Georgia and across the country, as well.

BLOCK: Is weather also a factor this year, Mr. Hudson, in driving prices up?

HUDSON: Probably of all things, that's the most significant factor. Here in southern Georgia, we had the wettest spring and summer in the history of record keeping. And that creates some real issues particularly with disease. And we had a lot of disease this year.

BLOCK: You know, I've noticed something as we've been talking, Mr. Hudson, because we've been debating this here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I've heard you say pecan and I've heard you say pecan.

HUDSON: Well, you'd also hear me say pecan.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Depending on the day?

HUDSON: Pecans, pecans, potato, potato. If I want to be real sophisticated, I might say pecan. Or back home, we mostly call them pecans.

BLOCK: Pecan.

HUDSON: There you go.

BLOCK: Do I sound like a Georgian?

HUDSON: A little bit.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You're just being nice.

HUDSON: Well, you need to come down see us. We talk a little slower and we're always hospitable to anybody who wants to come down and walk through a pecan orchard on a beautiful, sunny day.

BLOCK: That's Randy Hudson. He's a fourth generation pecan or pecan farmer in Ocilla, Georgia. Linguist Grant Barrett has also been diving into the debate over how we say the word for this nut. He's co-host of the public radio show "A Way with Words." Grant, welcome to the program.

GRANT BARRETT: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: And lots of variations for this word.

BARRETT: Yeah. He had six or seven himself, didn't he?

BLOCK: Yeah, I think he did.

BARRETT: Yeah. There's a strange history for this word. It basically has always had a variety of pronunciations. We find it first in - about 300 years ago, it shows up in the journals of French and Spanish explorers in the New World who found it in the native languages here. A variety of Algonquian dialects had it. And from the very start, the spelling and pronunciation did not remain fixed. So, some of the modern pronunciations we have trace their roots to 300 years ago.

BLOCK: Well, I've been looking at an academic study, a dialect survey on just this question. They ask people how they say the word pecan. And I should say that the most common - almost 30 percent of us say pecan. And right after that, 21 percent say pecan. Pecan, not so much, but it's in there.

BARRETT: Yeah. Pecan is more common in the Northeast and the Atlantic Coast of the Southeast. What's really interesting about this, if you go back in the language journals for about 60 years, you can come up with about 14 different pronunciations of this word. And it depends whether or not you put the accent on the first syllable or the second syllable - that is the stress - or if you say pee-, puh- or pic- and whether you say -can, -kahn or -kun. And you combine all of these different varieties, and you've got an infinite number of pecans. My only thing is, as long as they end up in as pie, I'm fine with whatever you want to say.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Well, Grant, thanks for chewing this over with us. We appreciate it.

BARRETT: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Gran Barrett is co-host of the public radio show "A Way with Words." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.