Some South Texas pecan crops damaged by Hurricane Harvey

Kathryn Cargo
Victoria Advocate
In this Oct. 23, 2017 photo, Stacy Lopez, left, of Dewitt M & J, carries small branches to a large brush pile for Jason West to use a front end loader to pick up on John and L'Nell Starkey's pecan orchard in Thomaston, Texas. The Starkey's orchard suffered damage from Hurricane Harvey and lost 4 trees in the storm.

THOMASTON, TX -  When John and L'Nell Starkey returned after Hurricane Harvey, the substantial damage to their pecan orchard left a sting in their hearts.

"To see anything that is damaged that bad, and something that we put our lives in — we were very sad," said John Starkey, 87. "We spend a great deal of time taking care of the trees, trying to make them healthy. It's like growing our kids or grandkids ... It's a serious injury, and it's going to be very emotional, very sad for us to see these trees that deformed."

The Victoria Advocate reports across the area, pecan orchards sustained heavy damage after Harvey, which made landfall Aug. 25 in South Texas, downed tree limbs, blew trees over and washed away leaves and pecans, said local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension agents.

The Starkeys have nurtured their orchard for about 30 years. Since Starkey retired from his medical career about five years ago, it's been the couple's main focus during their spare time.

Jason West, of Dewitt M & J, uses a front end loader to pick up brush from John and L'Nell Starkey's pecan orchard in Thomaston, Texas. The Starkey's orchard suffered damage from Hurricane Harvey and lost 4 trees in the storm.

After Harvey, the Starkeys found four down trees out of their estimated 275. About 60 percent of the trees sustained major limb damage, and all of them sustained some damage, Starkey said. The couple's fences leaned under piled-up debris as well.

The Starkeys might be able to collect some pecans one at a time this harvest season but won't be able to use their usual harvest machine because of all the mess. Starkey estimates they lost about 80 percent of their crop.

He said some of his trees that lost leaves or had broken limbs started new growth with the warm weather after Harvey. Some of the trees even bloomed like they would in the spring.

"(The crop) was thinking it was spring again: 'We have to restore ourselves. We have to rebuild,'" he said. "They wanted to put on new growth, and we saw some blooms on this new growth like, 'We're going to make some more pecans,' and here it's September, October."

The new buds of leaves will throw the trees off track if they use a lot of energy they would use next spring to start making next year's crop, said Monte Nesbitt, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialist.

"The fact those buds have been activated matters because those (trees) normally stay in a resting state until next spring when they would bud out and make next year's crop," he said.

Larry Stein, Texas A&M University professor and Extension Service horticulturist, agreed with Nesbitt. He said it could take two to three years for substantially damaged trees to grow back and have a significant crop, but only time will tell.

In this Oct. 23, 2017 photo, an uprooted pecan tree lies at the front of John and L'Nell Starkey's pecan orchard in Thomaston, Texas. The Starkey's orchard suffered damage from Hurricane Harvey and lost 4 trees in the storm.

"The challenge you have is you have to regrow those trees," he said. "The crop next year is virtually none because of all of the limb structure that was lost. The challenge you have when trees put buds out on this time of the year (is) it expends energy they would use next year."

Charles Nelson Jr., 63, owns Nelson Pecan Farm in Inez. Like the Starkeys, Nelson estimates he lost about 80 percent of his crop this year. After Harvey, Nelson had seven trees down out of about 470. About 30 percent of the remaining crop sustained major limb damage.

"For the pecan orchard itself, it's going to affect it," he said. "I would expect for next year to be a little slim and the next year to be smaller. You never know how these trees are going to react. Who knows, you know?"

The Nelsons are in the process of getting help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency. They signed up for the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, NAP, long before Harvey. Nelson said the process is long, and he's not sure how much financial help he'll get.

"It will all work out," he said. "It takes a little time."

Darrin Watkins, the Victoria Farm Service Agency's executive director, said pecan orchard owners should apply for the disaster assistance program annually. The deadline to apply for 2018 is in March. To receive help, orchard owners must have filed for disaster assistance within 15 days of noticing the damage.

An adjuster will go out to an orchard and try to determine the amount of crop lost this season, Watkins said. If it's not a total loss, the adjuster will ask the orchard owner to harvest what they can and compare that production to previous seasons to determine the amount lost. Once the adjuster determines that figure, the Farm Service Agency can process the disaster assistance application.

"We really haven't had that many (orchard owners or managers) apply for assistance," he said. "It's either because of the timing of the storm or they just don't know about our agency."

Nelson said a pound of pecans is selling for $5 to $7 after Harvey. He said it might be because of the decrease in pecans harvested in the area this season. Usually, a pound sells for $3.50 to $4.

"It's affected the prices," he said. "(It) doesn't help you when you don't have any pecans to sell."

Starkey said his orchard will never completely return to how it was before Harvey.

"We feel even though we've been damaged here and had a loss, things will come back, although they will never be normal again," he said. "We'll never completely recover because the trees are older and we've had so many big limbs off."