HOUSTON—On the day after Thanksgiving, as holiday shoppers jammed malls for Black Friday sales, Brenda Stewart decided she needed some pecans.
So she headed to Canino’s Produce, the largest farmer’s market in Houston, where customers are greeted with the grinding sounds generated by noisy shelling machines cracking whole pecans.
“This is my retail therapy,” Stewart said. “I’m going to sit and I’m going to shell them, then roast them, then bake some, then eat some.”
The only glitch in her holiday cheer was the brightly colored sign over the biggest display of nuts. A three-pound bag of cracked pecans that cost $13.95 two years ago now cost $17.95, a price jump she couldn’t help, but notice.
“Oh, merciful heavens, yes!” she said. “Yes, I have. And I had sticker shock today.”
Grocery shoppers heading for the produce aisles this holiday season are noticing a steep price hike in a commodity that’s especially popular this time of year. Pecan prices have gone nuts, jumping more than 40 percent in some stores that can still keep them in stock.
The spike in cost varies, depending upon the variety and whether the pecans are shelled. At Canino’s, prices have jumped more than 40 percent during the last two years.
The great pecan price spike of 2013 has caught national media attention. The New York Times quoted unnamed industry officials estimating the nation’s pecan production could drop 35 percent this year. Slate reported pecan pie prices in New York and San Francisco had skyrocketed to as much as $34. Forbes warned in early November that consumers could expect to pay as much as $9 a pound.
The blame goes to a number of factors, but all of the knowledgeable finger-pointing leads one direction: China.
“The Chinese came in here about two months ago,” said Bill Canino, who’s been buying and selling vegetables and nuts in the Houston area for more than 40 years. “Pecans are a big deal in china right now. And they just offered some outrageous prices to all the growers.”
The China market for pecans has been growing for years, with some sources estimating more the world’s most populous country is now absorbing more than 30 percent of the U.S. crop. But it seems wholesale buyers have been stockpiling pecans before Chinese New Year celebrations coming in February.
Here in Texas, growers have harvested substantially fewer pecans during 2013, Canino said.
“It’s just an off year for Texas,” he said. “Last year was just a monster, monster crop. And usually after that happens, it sets the trees back where they almost have to take a year to recover.”
Canino expects prices to drop – but only a little – as the Chinese New Year approaches. (Shipping pecans to the far east takes weeks, he explains, and the deadlines have pretty much passed.) Beyond that, customers look forward to some long term relief.
“We’re hoping there’ll be a good crop again next year and the price will go down” said Janna Vander Lee, a customer at Canino’s.