Tiny nut takes Orient by storm
Pistachios are just out of their childhood as a major California crop and already they are establishing themselves as a prime agricultural export. Growers and industry leaders couldn’t be more pleased.
The tiny and shiny nut with the blond shell and open seam down its suture is captivating Chinese consumers. A recent trade mission by Californians representing pistachios and other popular agricultural products found receivers in China excited and confident about the product’s appeal to a rapidly growing middle class with its discretionary income.
California growers are confident as well. They have planted pistachio trees in profusion for the past 40 years, in greater intensity in the past 10 or 20. Acreage has increased to 250,000, and production is expected to reach one billion pounds by 2018 or 2020 at the latest. For comparison, California’s gigantic almond production reached one billion pounds six years ago, and is now stretching for the two-billion pound mark.
Of Course, the underpinning for the vigorous pistachio movement has been domestic sales. Nothing has dominated the snack market as quickly and surely as pistachios. Aided by Superbowls, college level playoffs and a variety of TV sports attractions, eating pistachios has become a “guy thing.”
The production area for the medium-sized trees is between Merced and Bakersfield, down the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. In several cases the rapidly increasing acreage has taken place through large leaps and bounds, growers planting 500 acres at a time.
Some of the earliest plantings occurred in the Sacramento Valley in the late ‘60s, after a “mother tree” was nurtured at the plant introduction station at Chico. Significant plantings of pistachios continue to produce well in Sutter, Butte and Colusa Counties.
The underpinning for the pistachio boom has been the discovery of a handful of varieties that display genuine appeal. Prior to their introduction the nut was identified with the Middle East, treated with dyed shells to hide inherent blemishes. Varieties grown there for centuries did not have the vigor of the later introductions that have formed the foundation for the California production.
At the other end of the scale acceptance of the crop by growers was slowed by the trees’ characteristic of growing for six or seven years before producing a worthwhile volume of nuts. Until then it is all input for growers – water, pest control, fertilizer, pruning and weed control. But the plusses have outrun the minuses.
Walnut growers also face a long wait between planting and bearing. They produced slightly more than a billion pounds in the 2010-2011 year from trees populating 245,000 California acres. Growth is assured as new varieties which produce 6,000 pounds per acre replace older trees capable of only2,000 pounds per acre.
The 400-pound gorilla in California’s pistachio industry is Paramount Farms, the largest almond grower, largest citrus grower, the largest pomegranate grower and the largest pistachio grower. “Largest,” of course, means the most acreage devoted to a particular crop; nothing to do with height, weight or waist size.
Paramount has displayed a preference for going it alone in the promotion and improvement of the pistachio industry. When it withdrew from the California Pistachio Commission in 2007 the organization collapsed. Since then Paramount and other handlers have promoted and advertised pistachios as they see fit.
In place of the commission the majority of growers have banded together in American Pistachio Growers, headquartered in Fresno. Its marketing arm, supported by voluntary contributions from members, informs potential buyers of industry happenings and serves as a voice for its 491 members.
Lately the voice has been practicing its Chinese dialects, or at least its relationship with trade representatives in China. Controlled growth is the objective. But if the Chinese develop a Superbowl of their own the pistachio industry might have a dragon by the tail.
Don Curlee is an agriculture consultant in the Valley. His column appears each Monday in The Recorder.