WASHINGTON — West Texas pecan grower Kevin Ivey arrived on Capitol Hill this spring with the hopes of finding a lawmaker — any lawmaker — willing to shake some trees over the trade barriers stopping America’s native nut from getting a real bite of India.
He encountered mostly polite interest over what, at first crack, might sound like a nutty idea.
India, after all, last year accounted for .0004 percent of the export market for U.S. pecans. And while the pecan has deep roots in Texas — where it is the state tree and the state pie — Congress’ unforgiving loam is already filled with health care and other issues that stand much taller.
But then Ivey met Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Not only was Cruz eager to learn why the pecan faces tariffs in India that are three times higher than those for almonds and pistachios, but he also saw the massive market potential of a country with 1.3 billion people and a growing middle class.
And just like that, a long-stunted trade tussle sprouted anew.
“He understood completely the unfairness of it,” said Ivey, a bolo tie-wearing 46-year-old whose extended family has been growing pecans near El Paso for generations.
West Texas pecan grower Kevin Ivey (left), president of the U.S. Pecan Growers Council, met last spring in Washington with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to make the case that India needs to lower its pecan tariff.
The pecan accords are more of a food fight when compared to weightier battles over the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trump administration’s broader worldview on trade.
But when Cruz last month rallied senators to press U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to work with India on its 30-plus-percent tariff, he entered a world of intra-nut and inter-nut rivalries, bizarre trade rules and the complexities of an increasingly globalized market.
It’s a world, in truth, where the pecan is trying to break out of its shell.
Seeking global markets
The pecan offers more than bite-sized health benefits, but it’s best known as the star of Southern desserts. The nut has found success in China, but is still a bit international player. The industry has finally created a unified marketing and lobbying push, but the teamwork is just taking shape.
So a seemingly minor trade dispute isn’t just about breaking down what Cruz called India’s “punitive tariff regime.” Or giving the industry access to maybe the biggest economic opportunity on the globe. Or creating jobs in Texas and a dozen or so other pecan states.
It might also be about restoring the pecan to its rightful place in America’s nut hierarchy — one now dominated by the almighty almond.
“If you look strictly at the health benefits and the taste, the pecans are a better nut,” said Bob Ackerly, a South Texas pecan grower. “So here’s a group with a lower-quality nut and look what they’ve done with it.”
That the pecan is in such a predicament is something of a stunner.
The nut is rare in being native to North America. That’s why long before almonds arrived as a health food staple, and Stephen Colbert pitched pistachios on national networks, the pecan reigned supreme in American cupboards.
As recently as the 1960s, Americans ate more pecans than any other tree nut — a supply produced for generations by mom-and-pop growers in states like Texas and Georgia. (Peanuts, a popular household rival, aren’t tree nuts, but legumes.)
The coming decades, however, brought wholesale changes as American food companies began adding pecans to cereal as a nutritional booster, said James McWilliams, a Texas State University history professor and author of The Pecan: A History of America’s Native Nut.
Industry consolidation. A shift to cultivated, improved pecans over the wild variety. And still the harsh reality that the pecan business can be a tough one to crack.
Shannon Ivey is a fourth-generation pecan farmer in Tornillo, about 45 minutes southeast of El Paso.
Just ask Shannon Ivey, a West Texas grower who knows firsthand the challenges of cultivating pecan trees, which can take nearly a decade to pay off, and unpredictable weather, which can wipe out a crop in minutes.
Some 45 years ago, his father persuaded his grandfather to start transitioning a 400-acre farm of mostly cotton to pecan trees.
The project didn’t finish until 2008.
“Mother Nature always has something to say,” said Ivey, whose second cousin is Kevin Ivey.
But the pecan industry’s biggest problem has been more picayune: organization, or lack of it.
The pecan belt stretches across the southern U.S. from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Different varieties produce a cornucopia of sizes, tastes and colors. And regional pride, along with rifts between growers and shellers, has hurt efforts to get 15,000 pecan farmers under one canopy.
“It’s hard to get people together,” shrugged Kevin Ivey, president of the U.S. Pecan Growers Council, which promotes exports.
Compare that to Big Almond, which is grown in California by Californians who share a California ethos.
“They all go to the same schools out there. … They all live in the same San Joaquin Valley,” grumbled George Martin, a Texas sheller who owns Navarro Pecan in Corsicana. “So they have a lot in common.”
Agricultural lobbyist Bob Redding said the almond has found success — replicated by a handful of other nuts — thanks to its growers long ago agreeing to a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that dedicates a portion of their earnings to be used for research and marketing.
Pecan growers, by comparison, didn’t have their own federal marketing program until last year.
That kind of muscle has served the almond industry at home and abroad, where almonds are hailed as one of the biggest agricultural trade successes between the U.S. and India.
Martin, the sheller, recalls his bafflement when Blue Diamond Growers set its sights on India decades ago.
He figured the steep Indian tariffs faced by all nuts at that time would make it cost-prohibitive.
He even remembers asking the almond co-op’s then-boss, Walt Payne, “Why in the hell are you spending this money in India?”
The U.S. last year sent 233 million pounds of almonds to India, now that nut’s biggest export market.
“That’s when I got my education,” Martin said.
The pecan industry has since received its own taste of the international scene.
Twenty years ago, the U.S. sent paltry numbers of pecans to China. Now, Hong Kong and China combine for 40 percent of the U.S. pecan export, in part because trade barriers dissolved.
The demand is so great, Chinese buyers drive around South Texas looking for pecan orchards.
In China, the nut is soaked in flavored solutions and touted for having “miraculous health benefits” beyond its nutritional value, said McWilliams, the pecan author.
“Like you will live longer, you will look younger,” he said.
American growers say they see the potential for similar pecan passion in India, where the middle class — as in China — is exploding. Pecan peddlers say India presents an industry-changing opportunity, if not for the tariff.
Indians “want to buy these nuts,” said Redding, the ag lobbyist whose portfolio is a mixed assortment of nuts. “But not with a 36 percent tariff.”
India is known for agricultural tariffs that are “wonderfully arbitrary,” said Ron Kirk, the former Dallas mayor who served as trade ambassador under President Barack Obama. The rising superpower “uses them as bargaining chips,” he explained.
Ron Kirk, the former Dallas mayor who served as Barack Obama’s trade ambassador, said India is known for having agricultural tariffs that are "wonderfully arbitrary."
But pecan partisans are irked that almonds see a tariff closer to 10 percent, thanks to years of sustained pressure. Even the pistachio industry, which didn’t exist commercially in the U.S. until the 1970s, succeeded a few years back in winning a 10 percent tariff in India.
The tariff is even more frustrating because India doesn’t grow its own pecans.
“It doesn’t serve a function of even protecting a domestic pecan industry in India,” said Cruz, who pronounces it “pih-kahn” but won’t divulge his favorite nut.
The Republican isn’t the first in Washington to get on the case. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Democrat from the “pēe-can” powerhouse of Georgia, has been working the issue for years. And the U.S. Trade Representative office asks India each year to lower its tree nut tariffs.
But with President Donald Trump in office, Cruz could prove an important ally.
The Texan’s time in D.C. has been known more for his presidential ambitions than something like pecan particulars. But Cruz, who later visited Kevin Ivey’s pecan farm, rattles off stats on the industry and touts the job creation that could come from bolstered trade.
He sees a lowered pecan tariff in India as a potential “win-win.”
“A win for Texans growing pecans and indeed for Americans across the country growing pecans, but also a win for India receiving more imports and more revenues,” he said.
Cruz continues to be “in conversation” with the U.S. Trade Representative office, which declined to comment. And there is added optimism because Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is a Georgian who knows the pecan well.
But increased demand from Indian consumers could provide the ultimate boost, trade experts say.
Pecan purveyors promise that’s a matter of when, not if.
“The other nuts, they fear pecans,” said Martin, the Texas sheller. “Because we are superior to them.”