Shell Game

How China’s booming demand for America’s only edible native nut is transforming the Texas pecan industry.
Photograph by Craig Washburn

On October 2006, at a global food trade show in Paris, several representatives from the U.S. pecan industry found themselves pursuing something of a fool’s errand. They were seeking a European market for their product. The Europeans have flatly rejected the pecan since colonial times, preferring the taste of walnuts and chestnuts to that of America’s only edible native nut. But the American market, after a century of growth, had become stagnant—inventories were high and there was little new demand—and the industry, which has never managed to convince consumers to toss back pecans the way they do peanuts, was desperate for a lifeline. On a lark, a representative offered a basket of shelled pecans to a team of Chinese nut buyers. The Asians, to everyone’s surprise, were impressed. Really impressed. “We think there’s potential for tremendous growth,” a New Mexico agriculture official later told the Associated Press. This turned out to be the understatement of the decade. 

In 2000 China was so unfamiliar with pecans that it didn’t have a word for them. Today it purchases nearly 100 million pounds a year, about a third of the entire United States crop. Unlike Americans, who prefer pecans in their muffins and waffles and ice cream, the Chinese crack them open and eat them straight from the shell. “The Chinese,” the Wall Street Journal reported in 2011, “want our nuts.” And they’re getting them. Thanks to the growing Chinese demand—a demand fueled by a deep faith in the nut’s nutritive power—pecan prices have shot up. In 2012 alone, pecan exports to China spiked 64 percent. 

One would think that Texas pecan growers would be well positioned to cash in on this boom. After all, Texas has

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...