By Elliott Minor
The Associated Press
CORDELE, Ga. - Using Georgia's famous Vidalia onion as a role model, the state's pecan growers are trying to add value to their crops by marketing the nuts as a specialty product.
The Georgia Pecan Commission is matching a $25,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider the feasibility of creating a high-quality "Georgia pecan" brand.
The study will look at other successful commodity promotions, such as Idaho potatoes, Florida citrus, California walnuts and almonds and Georgia's sweet Vidalia onions - an $80 million crop that has captured 10 percent of the U.S. onion market.
"Our thinking is that Georgia is the No. 1 pecan-producing state in the nation; there might be something there," said John Williams, president of Sahlman Williams Public Relations in Tampa, Fla., the firm that will conduct the study.
But it may be harder to create a demand for "Georgia pecans" because the nuts are grown from North Carolina to California. Texas and New Mexico are the nation's second- and third-largest producers.
Vidalia onions, on the other hand, can be grown in only 20 southeast Georgia counties. The varieties that can carry the Vidalia name are tightly controlled, and the name itself is a trademark of the Georgia Department of Agriculture.
To make sure Georgia pecans are of the highest quality, the pecan commission also will spend the grant money to educate retailers and consumers on proper storage methods.
"They have to be refrigerated," said commission Chairman Buddy Leger, who grows 90 acres of pecans near Cordele, about 150 miles south of Atlanta. "They have more oil in them than other nuts - the good fat - so they go rancid fast."
Pecan shellers already know how to store the nuts, but supermarkets and other retailers need help, Leger said.
The commission hopes its storage campaign will lead to more consistent quality for all consumers, including tourists to Georgia who may be tasting pecans for the first time.
"If someone tries a pecan ... and it's bad, they'll never taste one again," Williams said. "If storage is handled properly, that's going to be a win-win for everybody, the Georgia growers and the consumers."
Georgia produces 38 percent of the nation's pecans with a $100 million crop that averages 88 million pounds a year. Three southwest Georgia counties, Dougherty, Mitchell and Lee, have the highest concentration of pecan trees in the nation - largely because of a failed scheme in the early 1900s to sell retirement lots to Northerners, with the promise that each lot would produce enough pecans to pay their utility bills.
In recent years, the Pecan Commission and the Atlanta-based National Pecan Shellers Association have been touting the health benefits of pecans. Studies have shown that the fat in pecans can reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease.
On the Net:
Georgia Peanut Commission: www.georgiapecans.org
National Pecan Shellers Association: www.ilovepecans.org
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