The Lamar Senior Activity Center raises money every year cracking pecans. For 50 cents a pound, you can get your pecans run through one of the center's four nut-cracking machines.
John Camden, who has volunteered to operate the machines for five years, says the service is usually one of the center's biggest fundraisers. Just not this year.
This year is “so slow it's boring,” he says. “We sit down there and wait for people to bring pecans in. It’s the worst year I've ever seen.”
It's not that people are taking their nuts elsewhere. At a time of year when it’s common to see people in front yards and city parks staring intently at the ground gathering nuts, the nuts – and by extension the gatherers – are strangely absent.
Why? Part of the reason is the way pecan trees work.
Wild or “unmanaged” pecan trees (and to a lesser extent farmed trees) take a year off from producing nuts in between productive years. It's an important rest that helps them build up energy to make more nuts, says Monte Nesbitt, a specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
“When [Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez] Cabeza de Vaca was stranded in Texas in the 1500s, he made the first written observations about pecans being alternate bearing,” Nesbitt says. “The native Americans knew they would not get two years in a row of a crop.”
That cycle gets amplified when pecan trees in different parts of the state sync up with each other, having good years together, then bad years, in response to the weather. So, if a year is too wet or too dry in Austin, local trees might wait till the next year to produce pecans. Then that cycle gets locked in locally.
“We can go back to 2011, to that drought year, that kind of threw areas within Texas out of cycle from one another,” Nesbitt says. “So that you have pockets of Texas that are on and pockets that are off.”
But that doesn’t fully explain why 2017 seems to be so bad in Austin even for an off year. One possible reason for that? Last year’s super warm winter could have discouraged the trees from growing
“Pecan trees [were] not as affected as an apple tree or peach tree,” Nesbitt says. “But [they were] affected.”
Looking for a silver lining? If we have a cooler winter and enough rain, that should mean a big harvest next year, when the trees are well rested.
“I think we will be. I think we’ll be back,” Camden says.
In the meantime, he points out, the senior center also sells nuts, in case you don’t have any to bring in for cracking.