CLEMSON — Clemson University’s newest classroom will have no desks, no chairs and no white board — just trees.
It is a five-acre pecan grove that soon will greet visitors along the university’s main northeast entrance. The outdoor educational lab will used to train growers and homeowners in the latest techniques in caring for one of South Carolina’s oldest food crops.
“The orchard will mainly focus on commercial growers, but we’ll have programs to support backyard growers as well,” said Mark Arena, a Clemson Extension horticulturist who conceived the project. “We will hold educational programs at the site and install signage that will allow even casual visitors to learn about the management and production of this historic crop.”
Nestled between snap beans and sweet potatoes on the list of South Carolina’s top agricultural commodities, pecans are a multimillion-dollar crop in the state. Commercial production began here in earnest more than a century ago, but pecans have been a staple of the regional diet for much longer.
Prized in Southern recipes since Colonial days, the pecan has found a new market in Asia, where it is soaked in flavored syrups. Chinese demand pushed U.S. pecan prices to the neighborhood of $9 per pound, sparking renewed interest in the crop.
Arena warns not to expect a quick turnaround in prices any time soon.
“It takes approximately 15 years for pecan trees to begin bearing to the point that a grower can start to recover the investment,” he said. “It’s a long-term commitment. Our job is to help growers maximize their orchards’ existing potential and to plan judiciously for the future.”
The new orchard will allow Arena and other Clemson Extension Agents to deliver hands-on education in the proper management of pecans. Programs will cover planting, pruning, irrigation and the identification and control of insects and diseases, such as the pecan scab fungus that caused headaches for growers in last year’s wet growing season.
The idea for the educational orchard began in the remnants of an adjacent pecan grove along Highway 93 at the entrance to the campus. Arena and Paul Minerva of the university’s Landscape Services unit evaluated the site for campus planners and concluded that many of the old pecan trees in that shady spot were in decline and were not in a favorable condition for pecan production.
“Unfortunately, when you do not manage pecan trees for production they typically decline over time and the cost associated with bringing them back to a productive state is too great,” Arena said. “These trees are estimated to be at least 70 years old and consist of varieties that we do not use in production today. Pecans are in the hickory family and are prone to internal decay. Some of these have declined to the point they have become hazardous to pedestrian traffic.”
Arena is guiding a restoration of that grove. About a third of the old trees will be removed and replaced. The new educational orchard will be a stone’s throw away along the base of Clemson’s Kite Hill. Grant funding will help pay for site preparation and planting later this year or early next.
“Kite Hill is a prominent location. It will be the first thing many people see when they come to campus,” Arena said. “It will be a very visible and useful educational tool to support South Carolina’s pecan growers. Ultimately, we hope to become an evaluation site for new varieties to increase pecan production for the future.”