- Shell shock! The Pistachio Nut
- Flavour and nutrition make pistachios worth rediscovering
- Pistachio Nutrition
- Pistachcio Recipes
- 10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Pistachios
- 1. Pistachios Were Once Considered Exclusively The Food Of Royalty
- 2. Mangos Are Distant Cousins Of Pistachios
- 3. People Used To Eat The Tree Pitch Of Pistachio Trees
- 4. Hearing The Crack Of A Pistachio Shell Is Considered Good Luck
- 5. People From India Believe Pistachios Are Capable Of Warming The Soul – Literally
- 6. Pistachios Are One Of The Oldest Flowering Trees In The World.
- 7. Pistachios Are One Of Only Two Nuts Mentioned In The Bible
- 8. Harvested Poorly, Pistachios Can Be Deadly.
- 9. Red Pistachios Are A Total Sales Ploy
- 10. In 2014, Turkey Started Plans To Fuel A Town Entirely On Pistachio Shells.
- Blasted off
- Pistachio Nut Trees: Tips For Growing Pistachio Trees
- How to Grow a Pistachio Tree
- Additional Pistachio Tree Care
- Pruning Pistachio Trees
- Pistachio Varieties
- How to Grow Pistachios
- How to Care for Pistachios
- Pistachios Plant Pests and Diseases
- How to Harvest Pistachios
- Get Ready to Go Nuts
- Are pistachios the nut of the future?
- US pistachio industry continues growth stride
- Stay in Touch!
- Pistachio Cultivation Guide:
Shell shock! The Pistachio Nut
Flavour and nutrition make pistachios worth rediscovering
Is there a more perfect snack than pistachios? They’re delicious, good for you and, by having to wrestle them from their shells, offer finger exercises. It also slows down your consumption. Everything in moderation, you know. Of course, you can say those same things about oranges, too, but really, aren’t pistachios more fun? Pistachio is also a favorite flavour of ice cream, a fine nut to find in a biscotti and a tasty crust for fish or chicken on the grill.
As for all those shells, when you’re done, use them as drainage chips in pots and planters or save them to plant in the garden around your favorite plants. Snails don’t like their sharp edges.
Pistachios are grown on trees and have naturally tan shells. The kernels inside the shells are a greenish tan. They get their greenish coloring from chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is a natural pigment that gives leaves their green color. Pistachios are typically sold with the shells partly open and the kernels peeking out, making the task of separating the kernels from their shells easy. The shell actually opens on its own during the growth process. As the pistachio nut grows, it expands until it pops its shell open. Sometimes, pistachio shells don’t open on their own. Often, this is caused by immature kernels that don’t grow properly. Such nuts should usually be discarded.
A 1-ounce serving of pistachios equals 49 nuts and delivers 160 calories, zero cholesterol, 6 grams of protein and 13 fat grams. For comparison, cashews have the same amount of fat grams and peanuts have 14, while almonds have 15, macadamias 22, pecans 21 and walnuts 19. Of all the commonly consumed nuts, pistachios have fewer calories than other nuts. Only cashews come close to their nutritional profile. But they are too easy to eat endlessly, as you don’t have to work to shell them.
Pistachios have about 3 calories per nut or 713 calories per cup (shelled). Pistachios offer potassium (as much as half a banana) and protein. They have more dietary fiber and thiamin than yeast breads. Like olive oil, pistachios contain monounsaturated fat that has been linked with lowered cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease.
The nuts have copper (one of the reasons people eat liver is for copper, which helps the body make hemoglobin) and magnesium, which is also found in spinach. Many diets, including the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) recommend four or five servings of nuts each week. So why not celebrate the pistachio? Now that they aren’t all red we don’t even have to worry about painted hands anymore, either.
Red Dye Pistachios
Why were they red anyway, you wonder? Because in the 1930s, importers began dyeing the shells bright red to disguise blemishes that occurred during harvesting and so to make them more attractive to consumers. Though some enjoy the red color, many believe the red dye adversely affects the taste of the pistachio kernels. The red dye may also stain clothes and hands.
Pistachios are the seeds from the fruit of a small Persian tree, Pistachia vera, and they’ve been cultivated at least 3,000 years, widely in Central Asia to the Mediterranean region and now in California You might remember that during the Iran hostage crisis, when the U.S. Embassy was attacked and Americans were taken hostage for more than a year, pistachios were in short supply. The crisis interrupted exports of pistachios from Iran, the world’s leading pistachio producer, and sent prices soaring. That’s when California got into pistachios big time. Although the tree was experimented with in California in the 1930s, big commercial plantings didn’t develop until 1970, when farmers began diversifying from a heavy almond industry. The first major commercial crop was harvested in 1976. With the Iran export problem, California revved up production, and today is second only to Iran in pistachio production, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, a group of experts from Iowa State University, Kansas State University and the University of California, who serve as an information resource for agricultural producers.
Linguine With Pistachios, Garlic and Thyme
Pistachio-Crusted Lemon Chicken with Mixed Greens
Mixed Greens Salad Balsamic Dressing
10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Pistachios
Pistachios are nature’s super nut. What other food can bring happiness, warm your soul, fuel a town and get a mention in the Bible? The pistachio can do it all. In honor of National Pistachio Day, let’s celebrate the versatility of this amazing nut with ten bizarre, yet surprising facts you may not have known about the pistachio.
1. Pistachios Were Once Considered Exclusively The Food Of Royalty
Yeah. Because look how regal they are! Photo: Ruth Hartnup / Flickr
Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba declared pistachios were only to be enjoyed by royalty, even decreeing that it was illegal for commoners to grow pistachio trees, which we can all agree is just rude. They say the Queen even took her country’s entire harvest of pistachios for her and her royal court.
2. Mangos Are Distant Cousins Of Pistachios
From this angle, I can kind of see it. Photo: Mattie Hagedorn / Flickr
Personally, I don’t see the resemblance, but it’s true. Both mangos and pistachios come from the evergreen tree family. Their other weird relative? Poison Ivy. Those family parties must be pretty weird.
3. People Used To Eat The Tree Pitch Of Pistachio Trees
The original ‘giving tree.’ Photo: @mrsfawhittaker / Instagram
During the 17th century, pistachio trees were known in the Ukraine as “pitch trees” because they believed eating the tree’s pitch (which is kind of like a sap) would freshen your breath. Who needs mouthwash when you have pistachio trees, am I right?
4. Hearing The Crack Of A Pistachio Shell Is Considered Good Luck
Someone’s about to get lucky. Photo: @joanrpnzl / Instagram
In many countries, such as Israel and Russia, hearing the cracking of the pistachio nut was viewed as a very good omen. And in the Middle East specifically, they regarded the sound as an omen for a happy relationship. So naturally couples would meet under pistachio trees, waiting around for those nuts to assure them that their relationship was going to be a successful one. No judgment here.
5. People From India Believe Pistachios Are Capable Of Warming The Soul – Literally
I feel warmer just looking at them. Photo: @myfuturebakery / Instagram
Looking to cut down on your heating bill this winter? Pistachios could be your answer. In India, during the coldest winter months, people will binge on pistachios, which they call the “hot nut”. They believe that pistachios quite literally have the ability to warm a person from the inside out.
6. Pistachios Are One Of The Oldest Flowering Trees In The World.
#Ageless. Photo: @t.halling / Instagram
It’s thought that pistachios have been snacked upon for about 9,000 years, making the pistachio tree one of the world’s oldest surviving tree species. That being said, it should come as no surprise that…
7. Pistachios Are One Of Only Two Nuts Mentioned In The Bible
Garden of Eden, anyone? Photo: @pistachos_nazaries / Instagram
That’s right, they’re biblical. Pistachios are thought to have been one of the foods that Adam brought with him to Earth (Genesis 43:11) and, therefore, grew in the Garden of Eden. The only other nut to get a cameo in this bestseller? The almond.
8. Harvested Poorly, Pistachios Can Be Deadly.
Test tube baby trees done right! Photo: @marita_bonita / Instagram
On a darker note, pistachios that are not processed or harvested properly are not suitable for human consumption.
Aflatoxin, a chemical which can cause cancerous mold, has been found in some mistreated pistachios and has led to breakouts of disease in some parts of the world. Sometimes, if not caught soon enough, these pistachios can be fatal.
9. Red Pistachios Are A Total Sales Ploy
Nice dye job. Photo: @caresgomez / Instagram
If you don’t remember red pistachios, here’s a quick history lesson –until the 1980s, pistachios were typically a bright red – something U.S. vendors did to make them more appealing.
Traditional harvesting methods overseas made pistachio shells look blotchy – which was unappetizing for the American consumer. So pistachios were dyed red to hide their appearance until about 30 years ago.
10. In 2014, Turkey Started Plans To Fuel A Town Entirely On Pistachio Shells.
Think of all the pistachios you’d get to eat in the process! Photo: @simijois / Instagram
What do you do with all those leftover pistachio shells? Turkey has the right idea. In 2014, the country revealed plans to start the first ever eco-city, which would run entirely off pistachio shells.
The shells would get cooked in a digester, and the gases produced as a result (mostly methane gas) would theoretically fuel the town. The plans are still underway to see if this plan is plausible and we’re crossing our fingers for this pistachio-fueled town.
By Anna Gosline
Grab a handful of pistachio nuts and you will usually find several with shells that are closed so tightly they cannot be eaten. But soon you might be able to enjoy the snack without this frustration.
A gadget that listens to the distinctive pings made by nuts when they bounce off a surface could help to sort open-shell nuts from uncrackable closed ones.
Ripe, open-shelled pistachios, which fetch top dollar as a snack food, have to be separated from sealed unripe ones, which are normally shelled mechanically for use in ice cream or cake mixes.
But the spinning drums that producers use to do this are less than perfect. The inside of each drum has thousands of needles designed to catch on the open lips of ripe shells. Closed nuts end up in your nut bowl because sometimes they are speared too.
Now Tom Pearson, an engineer at the US Agricultural Research Service in Manhattan, Kansas, US, thinks he has the answer. He developed a sound-based sorter after noticing the different noises the two types of nut made when they struck the ground. “I could pick the types out perfectly without looking,” he says.
Pearson’s machine drops 25 nuts per second onto a steel plate, where a microphone picks up the impact sound they make. Signal-processing software detects the shorter ping of a closed-shell nut, and opens an air valve to blast it off the line.
While not as fast as the needle picker, the sound sorter is cheaper to maintain and up to 97% accurate – against the needle sorter’s 90%.
Geoff Gibbons of Setton Pistachio, California, is testing five sound sorters in tandem with his needle pickers. He estimates the machine will save the company $500,000 a year, and lot of frustrated customers.
Pistachio Nut Trees: Tips For Growing Pistachio Trees
Pistachio nuts are getting a lot of press these days. Not only are they the lowest calorie of the nuts, but they are rich in phytosterols, antioxidants, unsaturated fat (the good stuff), carotenoids, vitamins and minerals, fiber and are just plain delicious. If that isn’t enough information to entice to growing pistachio nut trees, I don’t know what will.
There are 11 species of pistachio nut trees with only Pistacia vera being grown commercially. It’s uncertain where pistachio nut trees originated, but possibly in Central Asia. Growing pistachio trees commercially for nut export occurs primarily in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Italy and Syria where the arid climate is optimal for growth.
How to Grow a Pistachio Tree
Climate is crucial when growing pistachio trees; ideal temperatures for pistachios are above 100 F. (38 C.) during the day. Pistachios also need winter months cold enough to complete their dormant period — 45 F. (7 C.) or below. In addition, pistachio nut trees don’t do well at high elevations due to the cool temps, or anywhere where it dips
below 15 F. (-9 C.)
So it’s a little picky about its temperature requirements. Conversely, pistachio trees do well in all soil types but really thrive in deep sandy loam. Well draining soil is a must and infrequent deep irrigation if possible. Additionally, they are quite drought tolerant but don’t do well in areas of high humidity.
Additional Pistachio Tree Care
Although pistachio trees are long living, with a large tap root, and can grow to 20-30 feet, seedlings can be grown in containers for the first three to five years and then transplanted into the garden. In the garden or orchard, trees should be planted 20 feet apart. Pistachio nut trees are dioecious; therefore, to get good crop set, both male and female trees are needed.
Pollination is through wind dispersal of pollen, which usually takes place in early to mid April. Stormy springs may affect crop set by interfering with pollination.
Pruning Pistachio Trees
Since these trees are classified as fruit trees, pruning pistachio trees is integral to producing higher quality fruit while controlling growth. For young trees, select the three to five branches you wish to use as scaffold branches or the primary structure of your pistachio in April of the first growth season. Choose those that are equally spaced around the trunk but not across from each other with the lowest branch 24-32 inches above the soil and cut all other branches below this.
Remove any upper branches that will shade the tree trunk and pinch those that are not scaffolds to 4-6 inches from the trunk. Then in June, prune the scaffold branches to 2-3 feet in length to promote side branching while leaving the lateral shoots to aid in shading the trunk as it grows.
Maintain the open center structure as the tree grows taller by choosing secondary scaffold branches. You may prune two to three times a year with summer pruning occurring in the spring and summer and dormant pruning in the fall.
Pistachios are one of my favorite snacks. There is something satisfying about cracking them open as a snack, one after another, while watching a movie. Plus, they aren’t bad for your health like some other noshes I could mention. Despite my love for the nutty snack, I always figured growing pistachios was too hard in my region, but I was wrong.
This member of the cashew family isn’t as challenging to grow as you might think. That’s perfect because they seem to be gaining in popularity as a healthy nibble. It’s no wonder more people want to learn about growing pistachios at home. After all, they have some of the fewest calories of the nut family, plus they’re rich in antioxidants, unsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and carotenoids.
The bad news is that growing pistachios is a long term commitment that requires patience. Pistachio trees take around 5-8 years to start to bear fruit, and it can take up to 15 years to get a full harvest. It’s worth it, though, once you first get to crack into your own fresh fruits. Ready for the commitment to grow your own pistachios? Keep reading!
There are several different types of pistachio plants, but only Pistacia vera is grown commercially. The Pistacia vera tree has long, grey leaves, and grows in USDA plant hardiness zones 7-11.
There are a few types of vera pistachios that grow well in the U.S.
- Platinum is a vigorous grower that can handle some cold. This variety is a clone developed after verticillium wilt nearly wiped out commercial pistachio crops in the U.S.
- Pioneer Gold is another clone that resists wilt. It’s the most widely grown variety in the U.S.
- Kerman is a new type introduced to the U.S. from Iran. It produces large, bright green fruits and bears in 6 years. Plant with the Peters variety as a male pollinator.
- Joley never gained commercial success because it has smaller fruits, but it’s a good option for home growers.
- Red Allepo is popular in Syria. It blooms early and grows crisp, crunchy fruits.
How to Grow Pistachios
Where to Plant Pistachios
The ideal locations for growing pistachios are areas that have cold but not frigid winters, hot summers, and little rain. Semi-arid desert locations are ideal. Pistachios prefer temperatures that are above 100℉ during the day. The trees need winter months that are cold enough to send them into dormancy, around 45℉ or below. Pistachios don’t like high elevations because of the cooler temperatures that reach below 15℉. Pistachios don’t grow well in areas with high humidity.
Seed or Rootstock?
You can either purchase a pistachio tree from a nursery or grow a tree from seed. Growing pistachios from seed can take years. If you’re an impatient person like me, it may not be practical.
Plant in Pairs
You will need more than one pistachio tree. To produce nuts, the female tree needs a male nearby, typically upwind. You’ll need one male pistachio tree for every 15 female trees.
The bad news is that the trees are unisex and you don’t know the sex of a tree until it’s time to bear fruit, which is eight years into its life cycle. That’s why most people plant several trees to help ensure they get at least one male.
The only way to know the sex of your tree ahead of time is by purchasing a grafted sapling or cutting. The sex will be the same as the parent tree.
Growing Pistachios From Seeds
If you decide that you want to start from seeds, you need to buy raw pistachio seeds. Buying directly from a nursery ensures you get the best product, but you can grow trees from the seeds purchased in the grocery store.
Going with the grocery store route is fine, but they can’t be salted or roasted. Those seeds won’t germinate, so it’s useless to try. Most health stores sell raw pistachio seeds.
Here is what you need to do is grow a pistachio tree from seed.
- Put a damp paper towel in a plastic baggie and put the pistachio seeds into the damp paper towel. Make sure you don’t put too many; five seeds is fine. Poke a few holes in the baggie for air circulation.
- Wait a week for the seeds to germinate. The bag needs to be kept at room temperature in an undisturbed spot.
- Once you see sprouts that burst from the seed, transplant it to a cup filled with soil. Make sure the cup has drainage holes. Keep the soil damp, but don’t overwater because it will slow the tree’s growth.
- Over time, you’ll need to transplant into larger pots until it’s time to plant it outside.
The trees don’t like having their roots exposed, so it is easiest to use peat pots as you transplant and finally plant your trees.
Sun and Soil Requirements
The ideal planting site for a pistachio tree receives full sunlight and has well-draining soil. They prefer sandy loam with a pH between 7.1 and 7.8. Pistachios are taproot trees, so the deeper the soil the better.
The trees can grow quite large, up to 30 feet in height, so you need to think about the future. Give plants 12-20 feet between trees and 20 feet between rows. Make sure there’s nothing that might get in the way above your trees, such as phone poles or electrical wires. Picking the right spot determines the successful future of your pistachio tree.
Transplanting Your Tree Outside
Seedlings can grow in containers for the first 3-5 years, then they can be placed into your garden. You can also plant seedlings outside in the spring or fall.
The first step is to dig a hole for each of your trees. You want the hole to be twice as deep as the root ball and twice as wide, giving plenty of space for the roots to spread out. Amend the soil as needed.
Place the tree into the hole, keeping it as vertical as you can. No one wants to grow a crooked tree. A level may be helpful to ensure its completely vertical. Do your best not to expose the roots as you plant.
Fill the hole back in with amended dirt, picking out stones, plants, and weeds. Water as soon as you plant the tree to prevent air pockets from forming in the soil.
How to Care for Pistachios
Pistachio trees are native to regions that don’t receive tons of water, so you don’t have to water daily or even weekly. When you do water, you need to do it so that the soil is moist four feet deep.
Plan to water your tree deeply every month. If you experience a lot of rain in one month, skip watering. Watch for yellowing leaves which is an indicator that the tree is receiving too much water.
The trees will go dormant in the winter, so you don’t need to continue watering. Stop around October, which encourages and prepares the tree for dormancy.
The best time to fertilize your pistachio tree is in the spring after the danger of frost has passed in your area. Try a 10-10-10 fertilizer, which is readily available at most garden nurseries or farm stores. Use 1/2 cup of fertilizer for every inch of trunk diameter at chest height.
Applying fertilizer to your pistachio tree is easy. All you need to do is sprinkle the granules evenly under the tree to 1 foot beyond the drip line. Then, make sure you give the tree 1 inch of water after applying the fertilizer.
Fertilize twice a year during the growing season. Never apply more than 5 cups of fertilizer for each season.
Like any of other fruit or nut tree, you’ll need to prune your pistachio trees. Winter is the best time to do a substantial pruning, while the tree is dormant.
Look for branches that cross over each other and for branches that are dead or dying. Most pistachio trees don’t require heavy pruning. You do need to be careful because removing too many branches can decrease nut production.
Establishing the Shape
When you are pruning young trees, pick 3-5 branches you want to use as scaffolding branches for the main structure. Do so in April of the first growing season. Look for branches that are equally spaced on the trunk but not across from each other.
The lowest branch should be 24-32 inches above the soil. Remove any branch that’s lower than that.
Once you picked your main branches, remove the upper branches that might shade the trunk. Pinch those that aren’t the scaffolding branches to 4-6 inches from the trunk.
In June, plan to prune the scaffold branches to 2-3 feet in length. Doing so promotes side branching, while the lateral shoots help to shade the trunk as it grows.
Rake the soil under and around the tree frequently. Remove the old nuts and leaves the might accumulate, and try to keep the area weed-free. Clearing the debris away helps to prevent pest infestations throughout the growing season.
Pistachios Plant Pests and Diseases
Pistachio trees don’t have a lot of pests and diseases that bug them throughout the year. Here are just a few that you should remember.
Phytophthora Root Rot
This is a soil-borne fungal disease that attacks the roots, making them weak. It can block the water and nutrients that need to be transferred from the root system to the upper part of the tree. Root rot can cause the tree to suffer from slow growth and production.
Alternaria Late Blight
This fungal disease causes black lesions on the leaves or the immature nuts. Severe infestations can cause premature defoliation.
Controlling late blight can be hard. Try appropriate fungicides and use good irrigation practices that reduce the wetness of the ground around the tree.
Keep weeds and debris from around the tree and prune dead or dying branches.
Septoria Leaf Spot
This is another fungal disease that often goes hand-in-hand with Alternaria late blight. Leaves will develop small, round, necrotic spots that can cause defoliation.
Control in the same way as you do Alternaria late blight.
Panicle and Shoot Blight
Yet another fungal disease, this one causes black circular spots on the leaves, shoots, and rachis. The infected leaves will wither and die.
Unfortunately, this fungal disease is hard to control. You need to use a combination of pruning, fungicide, and proper irrigation practices. Prune the infected areas to reduce the problem the next year.
Powdery mildew causes small, powdery white patches on the leaves and fruit, covering the entire leaf. In most cases, its caused by poor circulation and too much shade. Luckily, it won’t cause severe damage to the pistachio.
This pest can cause the leaves to turn yellow and necrotic. You might notice curling and drying leaves that drop from the tree prematurely. The leaves might have a sticky honeydew substance on them.
The best way to manage this pest is to apply insecticides, but some of these pests have developed resistance to the standard options.
Verticillium wilt is a serious problem for commercial pistachio growers in California. Vert is a fungus that prevents the exchange of water inside the tree. The best bet is to plant resistant varieties and destroy infected trees.
This bacteria causes sooty legions and an excessive amount of resin on trees. Be sure to sanitize tools to prevent spreading the disease, which enters plants through wounds.
Pistachio Twig Borer
If your growing pistachio flowers turn black and fall off the tree, look for larvae and adult twig borer moths. This pest lays eggs in the flowers and then bores into the tree. Use traps to control, along with encouraging natural predators.
How to Harvest Pistachios
The time has finally arrived to harvest your pistachios. It’s been a quick few years, right? You’ll know that the nuts are ripe because the shell pops open and the meat goes from green to a reddish color. It’s important to harvest ripe pistachios as soon as possible because they’re vulnerable to pests.
Harvesting pistachios are easy! Shake the trees, which will release the pistachios from the branches, and make sure you put a tarp under the tree to collect them. Check your fresh pistachios for mold. You don’t want anything but safe and yummy fruits for snacking.
Remember that pistachio trees are biennial bearers, which means that they have a small crop one year and a larger crop the next year.
The Average Yield of a Pistachio Tree
When a pistachio tree is young, the yield ranges from 2.2-4.4 pounds of dry nuts or 5.5-11 pounds of fresh nuts. As your tree gets older (7 to 10 years), expect the production to be around 13-22 pounds of dry nuts or 33-55 pounds of fresh nuts each year.
A fully matured, well-maintained pistachio tree can yield 33 pounds of dry nuts or 83 pounds of freshly harvested nuts.
Get Ready to Go Nuts
Planting pistachio trees requires you to think of the future because it can take over 10 years to have a full harvest. Once the trees produce, you’ll be swimming in the nuts, and it can be a lucrative operation to sell fresh pistachios.
Whether you to grow pistachios for your family or to sell, remember to ensure you have the right climate and pick the perfect location. These trees are hardy and can survive well, so take special care in the early years. They’ll repay you with hundreds of pounds of pistachios.
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Are pistachios the nut of the future?
Inside a climate-controlled laboratory at the Duarte Nursery outside Modesto, California, an experiment is taking place that could help determine what food we will eat for decades to come. Rows of steel racks contain numerous tiny almond, apple, walnut, pomegranate, pecan, avocado, fig, and pistachio trees in small translucent plastic cylinders. The saplings, planted in a high-nutrient agar mix that accelerates growth, are no more than 2 inches high and a few weeks old. Each is being subjected to versions of the stresses experienced just outside these walls in fields across the Central Valley: declining levels of water, escalating levels of salt. The big overarching, if unmentionable, force driving these experiments is climate change, which is beginning to roil the Central Valley.
Duarte, one of the largest commercial nurseries in the world, specializes in tree nuts and fruits, which have boomed across the Valley in recent decades. Founded four decades ago, the nursery grew rapidly as water piped into the Valley from the Sierras gave birth to the most bounteous center for agriculture in North America. The nursery now sprawls over 200 acres in the town of Hughson, just outside Modesto. Things began to change about a decade ago, according to John Duarte, the nursery’s president.
When I first met Duarte back in 2012, he resisted calling the shifts he was seeing climate change: “Whether it’s carbon built up in the atmosphere or just friggin’ bad luck,” he said then, “the conditions are straining us.” Today, he still avoids the climate change label. (“You should meet my daughter; I think she agrees with you on the climate business,” he told me recently.) But even seven years ago, Duarte was on the forefront of researching tree varieties suited to a hotter, drier, saltier future.
Trees present a particular challenge: Conditions shift, but the trees can’t move. A fruit or nut tree planted today may, depending on the species, be ill-suited to climatic conditions by the time it begins bearing fruit in five or 10 years. So the question Duarte is trying to answer, the one bedeviling farmers across the Valley, is, what to plant today that can thrive and bear fruit over the next quarter century or more?
“Everyone,” Duarte said, “is thinking about the impacts of warm winters and not enough water.” Valley temperatures are predicted to rise between 3.5 and 6 degrees F by 2100, while periods of extreme heat are expected to lengthen. Even now, it’s often not cold enough in winter to permit trees’ metabolism to slow down, a process critical to the spring flowering that produces fruits and nuts later in the season. Irrigation water is becoming saltier, too. Desperate farmers drilling ever-deeper wells are pumping up saltier water. And a new state law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, will likely serve as a catalyst of change. Starting in 2020, it will regulate how much water farmers can withdraw from the Central Valley aquifer. The law promises to shake up the methods and business of Valley agriculture.
The lessons learned here, or not learned, have implications for agricultural regions elsewhere, from the American Midwest to North Africa, southern Europe, and southwest China. These breadbaskets are already experiencing similar extremes of heat, drought, and flood, and new pests and diseases.
Climate change is revealing the vulnerabilities of an industrial agriculture system that relies on predictability. And it’s shining a light on alternative growing practices that are potentially more resilient to these environmental shifts.
“When I drive to the Central Valley, I get goosebumps; I feel the urgency,” says Amélie Gaudin, an agronomist at UC Davis who works with many Central Valley growers on improving soil quality. “I see an agriculture that is basically hydroponics. It’s like a person being fed/kept alive by an IV.”
“What happens when you no longer have the sugar-water?” she adds.
Fifty-nine years ago, the state of California authorized construction of a sprawling network of dams, pumps, and canals to deliver water from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada to a valley that was once the bottom of the ocean. Swamps were drained. Land was cleared. The California Water Project transformed the interior of the state. A once-dry savanna with occasional wetlands was geared toward one activity: cultivating food. A $17 billion agricultural powerhouse, the leading producer of most vegetables and fruits in the U.S., was born. But it was built on the fragile assumption that the snow would keep falling on the Sierras in the winter and melt in the spring, just in time for the dry season in the south, and that farmers could always pump groundwater from one of the nation’s largest aquifers when those sources went dry.
“California is buffered by irrigation,” says Charlie Brummer, director of the Center for Plant Breeding at UC Davis. “To the extent we have irrigation water, the impacts of climate change are muted.” But as the quantity and timing of melting snow water became more erratic, farmers made relentless runs on the underground water, creating a massive deficit. During the most recent drought, nearly 2 million acre-feet of water came out of the ground every year without being replenished.
In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, the state’s first effort to reverse rapid groundwater decline. Implementation begins next year when California will start assigning each farm a water limit that will grow progressively tighter over the next two decades. The goal is to make the aquifer “sustainable” — the water withdrawn should not exceed the water flowing in — by 2040.
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The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that at least 500,000 acres of Valley farmland will be fallow as a result of the SGMA by 2040 — about 10 percent of the Valley’s 5 million cultivated acres. That could be in addition to roughly 500,000 acres taken out of cultivation when surface water allocations from the aqueduct plunged during the recent drought. Fully implemented, SGMA will translate into an up to 75 percent drop in water usage for some areas of the Valley, according to David Orth, who previously worked on the SGMA as the chairman of the Groundwater Committee of the Association of California Water Agencies. “That’s a huge change,” he says.
Last year, University of California scientists published a paper in Agronomy suggesting that the climatic shifts underway challenge the Central Valley’s long-term life span as an agricultural powerhouse. They predicted declines of more than 40 percent in avocado yields and up to 20 percent in oranges, grapes, walnuts, and almonds by the 2060s. Strawberry, cherry, and apricot yields may also shrink.
Between 1950 and 2009, those all-important “chill” hours had already declined by as much as 30 percent, according to a California Department of Food and Agriculture study. “If trees haven’t had that low-chill period when they wake up in the spring,” says Mae Culumber, a nut crop adviser at the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, “it’s like being up all night and then trying to go to work.” They don’t get the metabolic slowdown necessary for the spring blooms that deliver fruit and nuts. Researchers have already observed that cherry, apricot, pear, apple, pecan, and almond trees are often less productive than they used to be.
When these stresses ratchet up, when things get too salty, too hot, or too dry, or an orchard is past its prime, farmers call on Zach Fowler.
Zach and his brother Garrett run Fowler Brothers Farm Management. They specialize in tearing down orchards. Business is booming as the many almond orchards planted a quarter-century ago reach the end of their natural lifespan, and more extreme weather stresses more orchards.
In April, I met Zach at his company headquarters in Waterford, about 15 miles east of Modesto. We headed across the rolling brown hills in his pickup until we arrived at a field of mostly dead almond trees, still standing, gray and black like apparitions. There I watched “orchard grinding,” as he calls it, in action. A “ripper” tractor outfitted with two long steel forks tore entire trees out of the ground, piling them at the end of each furrow. Another hulking orange machine called an excavator grabbed about a half-dozen trees at a time in enormous steel claws and dropped them into a red machine called a grinder. Its roaring, rapidly spinning blades can turn 15 acres of almond orchard into wood chips in a day. And it does so day after day.
The previous years of drought stressed out many orchards, Fowler said as we barreled along in his pickup truck. In the orchard we’d just visited, this year’s torrential rains and strong winds knocked trees over — they’re planted with extremely shallow roots — and oversaturated the soil. “Already,” he said, “they were not producing like they once did.”
He added, “I believe in climate change. We’re having severe weather for longer periods. And the swings from cold to warm and back again, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Fowler and his brother took out a lease on 40 acres of almonds in 2016. At the time, they thought they could count on well water if necessary.
But all that will change when the SGMA water limits go into effect. The Fowler brothers have an escape clause in their lease, which allows them to exit if water shortages threaten the orchard’s viability. He hopes he doesn’t have to invoke it.
Fowler’s predicament is shared by many Valley farmers. The SGMA hangs over them like the sword of Damocles. And yet many are still choosing to plant almond trees. As David Orth puts it, “The calculus now is, ‘If I plant almonds today, even if water runs out in 2030, I can still get profits out of it by then.’”
Some forward-thinking farmers, meanwhile, are abandoning almonds and turning to a nut native to the hot, dry Middle East: the pistachio.
Some of the mini-trees that started their short lives in that laboratory back on the Duarte Nursery ended up in Gary Norton’s 940-acre orchard about an hour’s drive southwest of Fresno. On the April afternoon when I visited, it was reproduction season.
Pistachio sex ed 101: Female trees produce the nuts; males produce the pollen. The world’s most advanced nut-tree breeders have figured out that you need just one male for every 20 females to make a productive orchard. On that afternoon, tree No. 8. in Block B in the third furrow of Norton’s pistachio field was preparing to procreate. No. 8 is distinguishable from the seven female trees to his left, and the 12 females to his right, by his relatively greater foliage and slightly stockier trunk.
Upon No. 8’s spindly branches are tiny buds, each hosting a reddish green tuft loaded with pollen. Whoosh comes a gust of wind and off flutters the pollen, little white glints of dust surfing the wind toward female blossoms.
If you’re already a pistachio fan, you can offer a perverse thanks to climate change: Pistachio trees require somewhere between one-third and one-half as much water as almond trees. Unlike almond trees, pistachio trees don’t die during extended droughts. Their metabolism merely slows and when water returns, they start producing nuts again. And they can produce nuts for 80 years or longer, almost four times the life span of an average almond tree. Pistachios can also handle, as Duarte’s team discovered, levels of salt that have already killed many an almond tree.
Almonds are not about to disappear, but since 2006, the acreage devoted to pistachios in California has more than doubled, from 150,000 acres to more than 300,000. As it gets hotter and drier, the range of pistachios is expanding northward, as the range of almonds retreats in the same direction. The state will produce about 1.4 billion tons of pistachios by 2024, according to the trade group American Pistachio Growers, a more than 40 percent increase over 2018 harvest levels.
“Almonds are for yourself,” Norton quipped. “Pistachios are for your kids and your grandkids.”
He gestured toward the peaks of the Sierras. “It’s like the fertile triangle here,” he said. “We’ve got mountains, desert, fertile soil, mild climate.”
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Indeed, the forebears of pistachios come from Mesopotamia — the fertile river system nourished by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Middle East and the birthplace of agriculture. (Other heat-tolerant crops from the same region, such as pomegranates and figs, are also booming in California.) California farmers have also benefited from the rivalry between the U.S. and Iran, once the world’s largest pistachio producer; tariffs imposed on Iranian pistachios reached 240 percent in 2017, helping California producers compete.
There is one key distinction between the two regions: There is no Tigris or Euphrates River in the Central Valley. Instead there is the San Luis Canal, flowing calmly a few hundred yards away from Norton’s farm, a blue ribbon of water amid the brown earth. Take that and the groundwater away and, well, around here it’s a dry, exhausted desert.
We stood on the edge of Norton’s property contemplating rows of nearly identical pistachio trees. Norton occasionally sprays glyphosate, which does a good job of killing anything green in its path. There was no grass, no underbrush.
“It looks like very little is going on,” Norton said, “but inside those rootstalks there’s a lot going on.” The male trees were shunting nutrients upward to make pollen; the female trees were producing blossoms.
But a problem lurked among these quiet exertions: In previous years, inadequate low-chill hours had caused some of the male trees to mature earlier than their female counterparts. They released pollen before many females were ready to receive it. This mismatch can lead to “blanks” — shells with no nut inside. In recent years, entire orchards have delivered 70 to 90 percent blanks. This year won’t be as bad, Norton thinks, but he’s still anticipating at least 10 percent blanks in his harvest. Though pistachios may be one of the most heat-tolerant crops, even they are vulnerable to disruption by climate change.
And so, farmers are testing another climate change adaptation strategy in the Valley. Rather than focus on switching species, it seeks to change how crops are grown.
Nina Ichikawa, interim executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute at UC Berkeley, calls them “centers of insurrection.”
About five miles from Norton’s pistachio orchard, I visited one such center in the unincorporated community of Five Points — the West Side Research and Extension Center, a sprawl of fields and a couple of Quonset-like huts used for soil testing.
Jeffrey Mitchell, an agricultural extension agent affiliated with UC Davis, has been experimenting for two decades with different ways of enriching the soil to enhance crop health. He’s testing four conditions: tilling without cover crops; tilling with cover crops; no-till without cover crops; and no-till with cover crops. No-till farming seeks to avoid disrupting the soil ecosystem and, where erosion is a problem, to avoid the loss of valuable topsoil by not running a plow through fields. Cover crops are plants grown to enrich the soil, including mustard, fava beans, and radishes.
The last field, Mitchell said, “is the real disrupter here.” Soil from the untilled, cover-cropped field contained far more organic nutrients than soil from the others. It absorbed water better and would thus be more resilient in drier conditions. Farms generally emit more greenhouse gases than they sequester. But the wealth of plant and soil life in that experimental field means it absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than conventionally grown fields. If widely adopted, such practices could theoretically transform farms into net absorbers, rather than emitters, of greenhouse gases.
Mitchell and his colleagues have also observed other benefits. They’ve consistently found a higher proportion of “bacteriovores and fungivores” in fields that have cover crops — organisms that eat the bacteria and fungi that harm crops. That translates to a reduced need for chemical biocides. The practices also stabilize soil. It doesn’t blow away as easily in the increasing number of windstorms. And they foster microorganisms that strengthen plants’ immune systems, enabling them to fight off pests and diseases with fewer synthetic chemicals. The crops he’s grown on these fields — including tomato, sorghum, garbanzo beans, cantaloupe, and cotton — have yields that are broadly comparable with those of conventionally managed farms.
This approach is often referred to as “regenerative agriculture,” because it’s thought to regenerate rather than deplete the soil. The most immediate benefit of cover crops and no-till may be how they reduce the need for irrigation. To demonstrate, Mitchell filled a long translucent tube with water, then dropped in dirt from the conventional field that was tilled and lacked cover crops. In another water-filled tube, he dropped dirt from the no-till, cover-cropped field, which congealed into a fist-sized mulch and better absorbed the water while the conventional soil dispersed quickly as the water passed through it. Healthy soil reduces water evaporation levels by 4 to 5 inches annually, Mitchell has found. If widely adopted, these practices could reduce water use throughout the Valley by millions of acre-feet per year.
Crops grown in such soil may also be more nutritious. Mitchell has been working with Daphne Miller, a physician who studies the links between the nutritional value of the plants we eat and the soil in which they’re grown. “What you see in Five Points,” she says, “is that the plots with the greatest diversity of cover crops had the most diverse microbiome in the soil.” Several studies indicate that a more diverse soil microbiome correlates with more nutrient-dense fruits and veggies.
The CDFA is encouraging these practices. In the past two years, its Healthy Soils program has awarded farmers some $10 million yearly in subsidies to facilitate the adoption of cover crops and other soil-enriching techniques. “It’s a different way of thinking about soil,” says Renata Brillinger, executive director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network. The program challenges the common assumption, she says, that “soil is just the thing that holds the plant up.”
“It is healthy soil that is the actual source of a field’s fertility,” she says.
The Burroughs Family Farms support three generations of Burroughs in the Valley town of Denair. Fifteen years ago, Ward Burroughs began transitioning his farm from conventional to organic. He and his wife, Rosie, saw that applying the cocktail of chemicals required for a conventional almond farm “meant destroying biology someplace, above or below the ground.” They had become leery of this approach.
In a test plot, organic almond trees seemed stronger than the conventional trees, Burroughs told me. He also noticed that a troublesome pest, the mite, attacked conventional trees more consistently than it did organic trees — which he surmised was because pesticides killed the mite’s natural predators. So the family withdrew several hundred acres from cultivation for three years, to cleanse the land of chemicals that had been applied over decades, and began planting new crops block by block. In 2009, the USDA certified the orchard as organic.
The Burroughs farm represents another trend in the Valley. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of acres devoted to organic agriculture in four of the Valley’s largest counties — Merced, Tulare, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin — doubled to nearly 58,486 acres. Organic is one of the fastest-growing segments of U.S. agriculture generally, and some organic methods may better withstand climate stresses.
The scene on the Burroughs farm contrasts greatly with the spartan pistachio orchard near Five Points. The rows under the trees here burst with life — wildflowers and cover crops like radishes and mustard plants (good for bees), filagree, and grasses like rye and foxtails, which enrich the soil. “When we quit spraying herbicides, the ground just springs up — grow, grow, grow,” Burroughs says. The land hosts multiple species of birds, small mammals, and insects, many of which prey on pests. The ground is far more absorbent than it once was, he says, reducing dependence on irrigation or groundwater access which, soon enough, will be curtailed.
Growing food this way requires significantly more labor than conventional farming methods. For example, a common pest on almond and other nut trees is the navel orange worm, which leaves its young to hatch in discarded nut shells. Conventional farmers apply pesticides to kill the worms before they hatch. But Burroughs goes through his fields after each harvest with a machine that shakes each tree and knocks empty shells to the ground, denying the pest a hatching location. “We break the nuts and kill the worms,” he says. But the approach requires several days of tree-by-tree labor.
Yet Burroughs is convinced that these practices are more than compensated for by his soil’s greater water absorption and the farm’s enhanced ability to withstand changing conditions. “Because we’re concentrating on soil health,” he says, “we’re set up to be much more resilient.” His yields don’t usually match those of his conventional-farmer counterparts, he concedes, but his net revenues are roughly the same because he doesn’t have to buy expensive chemicals or the machines to apply them.
Scaling up these methods on the many-thousand-acre farms common in the Valley presents a challenge. Conventional operations spray with pesticides prophylactically, a practice that regenerative agriculture seeks to avoid. But monitoring enormous fields for pests is a daunting task. New high-tech sensing devices can help farmers better target pests. But physical obstacles also exist: Mae Culumber, the ag extension agent in Fresno, told me that when farmers take a mechanical harvester through an orchard, underbrush complicates the machine’s ability to maneuver. Burroughs’ solution? When it’s not harvest time, he mows the cover crops and then lets cows graze on the felled plants. Their manure further enriches the soil.
Another issue to address is economic. To compensate for the extra labor involved — and the many other “extras” involved in running an organic farm — Burroughs charges a higher price for the food he grows. This is widely referred to as the “organic premium.” Another way to think about it, however, is as a price that reflects the actual cost of producing food. The generally lower prices of conventionally grown food are artificially depressed. Consumers may not pay the full costs at the grocery store, but those costs are still paid by society in the form of impacts to public health from exposure to agrichemicals or the increasingly apparent costs of conventional agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Food policy reform advocates, including the Pesticide Action Network and Food First, thus call for limiting the billions of dollars in subsidies paid to farmers who pursue destructive agricultural practices. They also call for directing that financial help toward practices that could reduce such externalities and help people afford food grown with less collateral damage. Hunger in the U.S. is a function of poverty, not the quantity of food produced. The low-wage farm laborers who work amid a bounty of food are among the most food-deprived in the United States.
They are also among the first to be directly stung by the shifts underway in the Central Valley, because those changes have a direct impact on farm employment. Which brings us to another major change in the Valley — fog.
Nothing is more emblematic of the Valley’s ideal growing conditions than its famous tule fog. It rolls across the Valley at night, making country roads treacherous to navigate. It also lowers evaporation rates and helps sustain those crucial chill hours, making the Central Valley friendlier to agriculture.
But after years of steadily increasing, the fog has lately been declining. A recent study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres revealed that from 1930 to 1970, the frequency of tule fog increased by 85 percent. Then, over the last 36 winters, it declined by nearly the same amount — 76 percent. What happened?
The researchers have a surprising explanation: air pollution. “Tule fog in the Valley increased dramatically during the period of rapid industrialization in the Valley and in Southern California,” says Ellyn Gray, a Ph.D. student who studies atmospheric sciences at UC Berkeley and lead author on the paper. But since the 1970 Clean Air Act, pollution has declined by over 70 percent. Particulates that once blew into the Central Valley, accruing moisture droplets and creating the fog, are now greatly reduced. That’s good news for Southern Californians’ lungs, but bad news for the agricultural system that has come to depend on fog.
“We’re getting back to the fog baseline we had in Fresno in 1940,” says Gray. In other words — irony alert! — the Valley is reverting to a less polluted version of itself.
This reversion dovetails with broader trends as the SGMA regulations tighten and, piece by piece, farmland is taken out of production. The retreat of agriculture could open the door to new possibilities in the Valley.
David Orth, who worked for many years with the Fresno irrigation district before joining the state’s Groundwater Council, is now collaborating with the Environmental Defense Fund to ensure that when land is removed from cultivation, the removal occurs with an eye toward restoring lost ecological resources. “If we just take the least productive land out of production,” he says, “we’ll end up with a patchwork of stressed and depleted land.”
The idea, says Ann Hayden, Orth’s collaborator at the EDF, is to ensure that land withdrawals are not done haphazardly, but strategically, “to maximize habitat for diverse species, create corridors for wildlife, and recharge the groundwater.” The EDF is also working on developing ways to pay farmers for ecosystem services provided by “re-wilded” agricultural land — money that could partly replace income lost from the cash crops they no longer grow.
Orth now foresees an array of changes in agricultural practices driven by water scarcity, which will ultimately lead toward a renewed focus on soil health. “During the drought years,” he says, “we had a real tragedy of the commons, with major overdrafts of the reservoir. We ate ourselves alive until the system collapsed.” But with change comes opportunity — a chance to return at least parts of the Valley to a condition resembling its earlier state, and to overhaul farming practices to make them less destructive to the soil and human health and more resilient to the challenges ahead.
Who doesn’t love pistachios? They are a tasty treat that are good for snacking and in many recipes. Plus, they are so full of healthy stuff that they really are good for you. Think you want to try growing your own? Let’s see if you have what it takes…
Climate is the number one most crucial factor in deciding to plant pistachio trees. Pistachios require long, hot, dry summers and chilling in the winter, but don’t tolerate ground that freezes. They require approximately 1,000 accumulative hours of temperature at or below 45° F during dormancy. The environment needs to be arid. Pistachio Trees don’t do well in areas of high humidity. Pistachios have the narrowest environment requirements of any commercially grown nut crop. The flowers of the tree are wind-pollinated, so spring and summer breezes are also necessary to ensure a good harvest. In the United States, that pretty much limits growth to the San Joaquin Valley in California, southeastern Arizona, far west Texas and the high desert of New Mexico.
Next you need to consider your soil; pistachio trees do well in all soil types but really thrive in relatively deep, light, dry and sandy loam soils, with high calcium carbonate (CaCO3) concentration. They do not tolerate wet, heavy soils. Well-draining soil is a must! They do tolerate high-levels of salinity in the soil.
Pistachio trees should be planted about 20 feet apart. If they are planted in less than 20 feet distances, after a few years, the overcrowding and the mutual shadowing of trees will decrease the quantity and quality of production and will make harvesting and pruning more difficult.
Since the wind carries the pollen from the male tree (pollinator) to the blossom on the bearing, female tree, the male trees are planted so that the prevailing direction of the winds will blow the pollen across the female trees. The ratio of male trees ranges from 1 male per 10 females to 1 male per 15 females.
It takes time and patience to grow pistachios. You won’t see your first pistachio until about year five (5). It will take about 7 – 8 years before you will receive a good yield of pistachios and 15 -20 years to reach peak production. To this, you must add that pistachio trees have an inherent tendency toward alternate bearing. This means the tree produces heavy one year, then stores nutrition, which causes a lighter yield the following year.
Pistachios develop in early summer and ripen in late August or September nearly everywhere in the world. It’s easy to tell when pistachio harvest season is getting closer because the hulls lose their green hue and take on a pinkish-yellow tint. When the nuts are fully ripe, the epicarp (the thin, elastic hull) begins to separate from the inner shell. At this point, the epicarp is easy to remove from the inner shell by squeezing it between your fingers.
Large pistachio ranches use mechanical “shakers” to drop the nuts, but the nuts can be dislodged by rapping the branches with a sturdy pole or a rubber mallet. The epicarps need to be removed within 24 hours of harvest to maintain freshness and flavor. The raw nuts can be roasted and seasoned after being dried. For small batches, all of this can be accomplished in your kitchen, but if you are interested in a large orchard, you will need to consider commercial equipment.
In recap, you need the perfect climate and soil, with a lot of time and space to produce quality pistachios. Did you make the cut? If not, don’t worry, you can buy New Mexico Farm Fresh Pistachios right here.
If you would like to learn more about growing pistachios, visit the Heart of the Desert website for an inside look. Farm tours are also available.
Heart of the Desert is a working pistachio ranch and vineyard with four retail establishments in New Mexico. They are best known for their farm fresh pistachios and Award-Winning New Mexico wines. Each store offers wine and pistachio tastings. They offer worldwide shipping and produce attractive gourmet baskets that make great corporate and family gifts. The main store, on the ranch in Alamogordo, offers farm tours that showcases how pistachios are grown and processed as well as a stunning Tuscany themed patio that overlooks the groves and is available for weddings, private parties or enjoying a relaxing glass of wine.
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US pistachio industry continues growth stride
Beeping sounds coming from cash register scanners at grocery stores across the nation signal substantial increases in U.S. pistachio purchases by consumers, much to the delight of the U.S. pistachio industry.
Cash register data from U.S. grocery stores, including Wal-Mart, reveal a 24-percent increase in pistachio sales in 2012 over the previous year, says Richard Matoian, executive director, American Pistachio Growers (APG), Fresno, Calif.
Matoian, speaking at the 6th annual APG Conference held in San Diego, Calif., in February, piled on a heaping helping of good news for the audience of pistachio growers, processors, marketers, and other industry members.
One-hundred percent of the U.S. pistachio crop is grown in the West, including California (98.5 percent of the crop), Arizona, and New Mexico. There are about 850 pistachio growers in the tri-state area.
California growers have about 250,000 acres of pistachios in 22 counties.
The financial impact of the U.S. pistachio industry is about $1.3 billion.
“2012 was a remarkable year,” said APG Board Chairman Jim Zion, a pistachio grower. “We produced a record pistachio crop last year, have record shipments, and some of the highest grower prices in recent years.”
Zion added, “We can truly say it is good to be a pistachio grower.”
Globally, sales of pistachios, as with its Western tree nut cousins — walnuts, almonds, and pecans — are … going nuts.
Over the last six years, Matoian said U.S. pistachio exports doubled, from more than 100 million pounds to almost 270 million pounds (through Aug. 31, 2012).
“This is a phenomenal record regardless of the commodity,” Matoian said.
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Over the last eight years, U.S. pistachio sales to China pole vaulted from about 5 million pounds per year to 120 million pounds annually. Since last September, sales to Eastern Europe are up 70 percent. Exports to Asia are 43 percent higher.
“These are very positive trends which continue to show that pistachios are gaining worldwide acceptance,” Matoian said.
Pushing global sales to the higher side are major financial investments by the pistachio industry.
Five years ago, Matoian said APG spent $400,000 on the marketing and promotion of pistachios. During the current fiscal year, the association will invest more $10.5 million on domestic and international marketing and public relations; 84 percent of the APG budget.
Last year, 74 percent of the APG budget was spent on marketing and promotion.
Looking at U.S. pistachio production and acreage, the 2012 record crop totaled 555 million pounds. With the existing bearing acreage and non-bearing acres entering commercial production, Matoian believes the industry could reach the 1-billion pound production plateau between 2018 and 2020.
Andy Anzaldo, Paramount Farms’ grower relations director, last fall shared the same projection with Western Farm Press.
In essence, this means almost doubling pistachio production in the next five to seven years.
Matoian told the crowd, “One billion pounds might be a scary number, but I am confident the pistachio industry can achieve the 1 billion-pound mark by 2020.”
Over the last decade, U.S. pistachio plantings have increased dramatically due to increased consumer demand. Over the last decade, 2007 was the peak planting year with about 25,000 new acres. Plantings last year fell in the 14,000 acre range.
Matoian said, “Based on discussions I’ve had with the people at this APG meeting I believe new plantings in 2013 could reach 20,000 acres.”
The optimistic leader believes the pistachio industry could achieve 250,000 bearing acres by 2017.
In comparison, 2011 California almond acreage totaled 760,000 bearing acres and 75,000 non-bearing acres, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The agency pegged California walnut acreage at 245,000 bearing acres. Walnut non-bearing information was unavailable.
Always at the forefront for tree nut growers is the grower price. Matoian shared a PowerPoint slide of National Agricultural Statistics Service data which showed pistachio grower prices since 2005 have hovered around $2 per pound. This is the initial price plus any bonuses, but does not reflect marketing bonuses paid at year’s end.
Matoian says gross returns to the grower per acre of pistachios were about $7,000 per acre for last year’s crop. Gross returns in 2011 were about $8,000 per acre.
Hansen family bullish on pistachios
Enjoying lunch at the APG Conference was the Hansen family of Hansen Ranches based in Corcoran, Calif. (Kings County). Seated at the table were brothers Jim and Jess (fifth generation producers), and their sons Erik and Phillip, and Nis, respectively.
The family also farms in Mendota and Three Rocks in neighboring Fresno County. Hansen Ranches produces pistachios, almonds, Pima cotton, and feedstuffs for dairies.
Like many California pistachio growers, the Hansen’s are bullish on the outlook for the pistachio industry.
“The demand for pistachios is growing very rapidly which is keeping prices higher to where it’s a good investment,” Jim Hansen said.
Last year, the family planted about 600 acres to pistachios on land purchased years ago. The Hansen’s total pistachio acreage is about 1,500 acres.
“We had to be optimistic on pistachios to plant 600 acres last year,” said Jim Hansen, which was followed by hearty laughter from the Hansen clan. “The large planting was a big move for us; a major effort and expense.”
No pistachio plantings are planned this year.
Most of the pistachios are the Kerman variety with some recent plantings in Golden Hills.
The oldest pistachio plantings are a decade old. With just a few years of commercial production under the family’s belt, yields continue to increase.
“Our yields have been reasonably good,” Erik Hansen said. “Results have been good so far.”
In the first production year, yields were about 800 pounds per acre (sixth and seven leaf).
“Now we’re up to about 3,200 pounds,” Erik said. “Last year, we had an off year for the older trees. We’re seeing a lot of good fruit buds right now (in February).”
When asked about the number one challenge facing the Hansen farm, everyone chimed in at once — “WATER.”
“Water restrictions are a major issue for us so water is our number one concern, especially for our almonds planted in Westlands (Water District) due to cutbacks in federal water,” Jim said.
At press time, Hansen said the family will fallow about 500 acres in Westlands this year, much of the land previously planted in Pima cotton. Prices for supplemental water were in the $350 per acre foot range or higher.
The Hansen’s will also fallow land in the Corcoran area due to water issues.
Overall, the Hansen’s call their operation successful due to many reasons, including good advice from consultants. Erik says their top asset is the family.
“It helps to have people who are engaged and have ownership in the business on a day-to-day basis,” Erik said. “When you have someone who will live or die by how well the organization is run then they tend to put a little more into it.”
Jim added, “We are lucky to have a good group of people and family which have led to our family’s success in agriculture. We are very fortunate.”
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William E. Whitehouse, surrounded by images of pistachios. Courtesy of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
In 1979, a group of Iranian college students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, where they took dozens of hostages. The resulting crisis dominated relations between the two countries, influencing politics for generations. But the tensions proved a boon for American pistachio production. When the American government slapped a retaliatory embargo on Iranian pistachios, California’s nascent pistachio industry exploded, to the point that Iran and the U.S. now are neck and neck for the accolade of the world’s top producer.
From a botanical perspective, this was a remarkable turnaround. Because only half a century earlier, a “plant explorer” named William E. Whitehouse had seeded the entire industry. In what is now considered “the single most successful plant introduction to the United States in the 20th century,” he traveled to Iran and brought back one very important seed.
While areas in Syria, Turkey, and Sicily have long produced pistachios, Iran’s climate is uniquely suited to the finicky crop. That’s because pistachio trees like extreme conditions—many varieties have deep roots and thick leaves that allow them to grow in hot, drought-prone areas, but they simultaneously require cold winters to fruit. According to Louise Ferguson, a pomologist and pistachio expert at UC Davis, the trees can survive in saline soils that other fruit trees would find insupportable.
While pistachios aren’t nuts, they’re often eaten as a crunchy snack.Safa.daneshvar/CC BY-SA 3.0
The Iranian town of Rafsanjan, in the province of Kerman, is a pistachio-producing powerhouse. It’s desert-like climate and high, chill-inducing altitude make it ideal for pistachios. Most Iranian pistachio farmers hail from Rafsanjan, says Leili Afsah Hejri, a food scientist who specializes in pistachio machinery at the University of Merced. She herself is the fifth generation of a pistachio-producing family from the town.
This concentration of nut knowledge points to another difficulty. Pistachio trees take about a decade to mature, and after they do, many pistachios only produce their trailing bundles of fruit in alternate years. Growing this nut is an investment. (Also, the pistachios we eat aren’t true nuts; they’re seeds.)
These unique requirements are what make pistachios more expensive than most other “nuts.” In fact, they only came to the United States in the late-19th century with Middle Eastern immigrants to New York. But they were imported as “edible nuts,” says Ferguson, “so those were processed and non-fertile.” For decades, imported pistachios were dyed red, as part of an effort to hide blotches. Companies loaded them into train and bus station vending machines, where snackers paid a nickel for a dozen. For years, these vending machines accounted for the vast majority of pistachios sold in the United States.
Fresh pistachios on the branch. Alamout/Public Domain
The botanically inclined experimented with planting the precious trees in the American South and California. But the true start to pistachio domination came with the founding of the Chico New Plant Introduction Station in the early 20th century. Paraphrasing a favorite sci-fi quote, Ferguson says that part of the USDA’s goal is to explore “new worlds” of plants. In 1929, the station sent William E. Whitehouse, a deciduous tree researcher, to Iran. His mission: to collect pistachio seeds for planting.
For six months, Whitehouse searched, gradually collecting 20 pounds of different pistachios. Some came from the Agah family in Rafsanjan, who, Hejri notes, is still the main producer of pistachios in the area. After Whitehouse’s return to Chico, the station planted and evaluated 3,000 trees. Only one pistachio rose above the others. Sourced from the Agah orchard, it was given the name “Kerman.”
“That became the basis of our industry,” says Ferguson. Its virtues are many. “They’re round in shape, they’re unstained and clean-shelled, firm, crispy, purple and yellowish-green kerneled … ” Hejri rhapsodises. Provided with a nearby male “Peters” tree for fertilization, the Kerman would become the American pistachio. A female mother tree at the Chico research station, planted around 1931, became the source of “all commercial pistachio trees in California,” writes journalist Eric Hansen. In Iran, more than 50 varieties are cultivated, not counting the great number of wild pistachios. But even today, the vast majority of California’s pistachio trees are Kerman.
Numerous types of pistachios grow around the world. bradspry/CC BY 2.0
Eventually, California’s San Joaquin Valley would become the Rafsanjan of America. Summer temperatures in the national breadbasket can be roasting, but the “winter fogs serve the same purpose that chill from altitude served in Iran,” Ferguson notes.
But progress was slow, and pistachio planting stayed small-scale for decades. Whitehouse kept his eye on the pistachio as a potential money crop for California, publishing a paper on the subject in 1957. He noted that while the Iranian pistachio had been an important local crop for hundreds of years, its value as an export was recognized only in the first half of the 20th century, “with new plantings keeping pace with the rapid increase in American consumption.” But despite the demand, it took two more decades for the first commercial crop of American pistachios to be harvested in 1976.
A single pistachio. ajc1/CC BY-SA 2.0
Yet the true reason for the success of the American pistachio was political, rather than botanical. In the early ‘70s, California growers turned to pistachio plantings when citrus and almond groves were increasingly taxed—an effort aided by the Central Valley Project bringing needed water. Then, a decade later, the friction with Iran resulted in sanctions on Iranian pistachios. “This California pistachio is brought to you courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service and the Shah of Iran,” the New York Times noted in 1979. Even after sanctions were lifted, Ferguson adds, the pistachio industry “organized very quickly and got a 300 percent tariff against the Iranian product.”
Whitehouse died in 1982, less than a decade after pistachios became a commercial crop. Though considered the father of the American pistachio industry, he’s never received much renown for his accomplishments. He did, however, have a pear (of all things) named in his honor, and received the first very-new Pistachio Association’s Annual Achievement to Industry Award in 1977. That year, only 1,700 acres were planted with producing trees. By 2012, that number had ballooned to 178,000 acres. It seems like small pistachios in light of his accomplishment: laying the groundwork for an industry worth $1.6 billion in California alone, and finding a new home for an in-demand tree.
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Pistachio Cultivation Guide:
Introduction of Pistachio Cultivation:- Pistachios are grown for its edible nuts and pistachio tree is a small to medium sized tree with a branching main stem and a spreading growth habit. It can reach up to 20 feet height in wild conditions and up to 10 feet in cultivated conditions. Pistachio is one of the culinary nuts grown in most of the countries and belongs to the cashew family. These nuts are the lowest calorie of the nuts, but they are rich in phytosterols, antioxidants, unsaturated fat, carotenoids, vitamins and minerals and fiber. It is uncertain where pistachio nut trees originated but probably originated from Middle East and Central Asia. Pistachios belong to the family of “Anacardiaceae and genus of “Pistacia”. Basically pistachio trees are either male or female. However, both are required to produce a crop. Usually the nuts are produced on the female trees where as male trees provide the pollen to fertilize the female tree flowers. Pistachio trees take longer time to get into production stage. Pistachio nuts have excellent demand both locally and internationally. One can obtain decent profits if they are grown in right climate by following good pistachio farming practices.
Health Benefits of Pistachio Nuts:- The following are some of the health benefits of Pistachio nuts.
- Pistachios are heart friendly nuts.
- Pistachios are good source of vitamins and minerals.
- Pistachios are low calorie nuts, hence aids in weight management.
- Pistachios help in reducing the risk of age related macular disease.
- Pistachios help in eliminating skin dryness.
- Pistachios are good source of dietary fiber and aids in digestion.
- Pistachios have Aphrodisiac and Antioxidant properties.
- Pistachios protects from getting diabetes.
- Pistachios help in absorption of iron from food.
- Pistachios help in decreasing the LDL (bad cholesterol) level in blood.
Pistachio Varieties in India:- Kerman, Peter, Chiko, Red Allepo and Joley are some of the varieties grown in Jammu & Kashmir region.
Climate Required for Pistachio Cultivation:- Weather condition is most important factor in growing pistachio crop. These nut trees prefer day temperatures above 36 °C and winter months cold enough to complete their dormant period 7 °C. These trees don’t grow well in high elevations due to the cool temperatures. In India, Jammu & Kashmir is natural location to grow pistachio nuts.
Soil Requirement for Pistachio Cultivation:- Pistachio tress can be grown in wide range of soils. However, they prefer well-drained deep sandy loam soils. These trees are quite drought tolerant but don’t do well in areas where high humidity is possible. Soil test would be helpful, if you are planning pistachio production on large scale. Pistachio trees will produce quality nuts with high yields where soil pH is kept at a range of 7.0 to 7.8. These trees are hardy ones which can tolerate higher alkalinity to certain extent.
Land Preparation in Pistachio Cultivation:- When it comes to preparing the land in pistachio cultivation, the process should be similar to other nut crops. Soil should be chiselled, ploughed and disked to obtain the soil fine tilth stage. If any hardpan is found in the top 6 to 7 feet of soil, it should be broken as pistachio trees are deep rooted in nature and these trees are affected by water stagnation.
Propagation in Pistachio Cultivation:- Pistachio trees are usually propagated by budding on to a suitable pistachio rootstock. These rootstock (seedlings) can be raised in nurseries. Usually, budding is carried out in fall with and the budded trees are being planted the same year or the following year depending on the size of the rootstock (seedling).
Planting and Spacing in Pistachio Cultivation:- As part of the planting, dig the holes large enough to accommodate the roots. Generally, the Pistachio trees should be planted 1 inch lower than it was raised in nurseries or containers. When it comes to plant spacing, it depends on irrigation. In case of irrigated gardens, plants should be spaced at 6 meter × 6 meter for grid pattern. In areas where irrigation is not available, trees can be spaced at 8 meter × 10 meter. For bearing Pistachio nuts, both male and female trees should be planted in the ratio of 1:8 (one male and eight female trees) to 1:10 (one male and ten female trees).
Irrigation in Pistachio Cultivation:- Though Pistachio tress are draught tolerant, they should be maintained with enough moisture whenever needed. Mulching is the best practice to retain the water. Drip irrigation can be adopted for proper utilization of water. Avoid any water logging conditions. Rainy season don’t need any irrigation.
Manures and Fertilizers in Pistachio Cultivation:- As nitrogen is important fertilizer for any nut crop, pistachios trees have a similar nitrogen requirement just like other nut trees. However, fertilizers should not be applied in the first year of planting but in the subsequent year. Each pistachio tree should be provided with 450 grams of ammonium sulphate in 2 split doses during the growing season. In later years, actual nitrogen (N) of 45 kg to 65 kg per acre should be provided. Nitrogen should be applied in 2 splits doses over the growing season.
Intercultural Operations in Pistachio Cultivation:- Pistachio trees should be trained to grow upward and outward direction and develop into a modified open-vase shape. The center of the tree should be kept open to admit sunlight for better flower formation and fruit set, which might be needed by the 4th or 5th winter season. Secondary branches should be removed as part of thinning operation. Once the tree framework has been established, only minor pruning cuts should be needed. Weed control is another task in pistachio production for healthy growing of trees and producing quality nuts. Make sure to clean the space between trees as the weeds compete for nutrients. Herbicide treatments should be mainly used for the berms and are applied pre-emergent and/or post-emergent. Mulching the trees controls weeds as well as retains the water content in the soil.
Pests and Diseases in Pistachio Cultivation:- Mites, Stinkbug and Leaf-footed plant bug are the common insect pests found in Pistachio production. Powdery mildew, Rust, Alternaria late blight, Armillaria root rot, Crown gall, Pistachio dieback, Septoria leaf spot, Panicle and shoot blight, Pistachio psyllid and Pistachio twig borer are some of the diseases found in pistachio cultivation. For symptoms and control measures, contact your local horticulture
Note: Contact your local department of horticulture for pests and disease symptoms and their control. They are the best source for control solutions in pistachio cultivation.
Harvest in Pistachio Cultivation:- Pistachio trees take longer time to produce nuts. These budded trees become ready to produce fruits for 5 years and will not reach maximum production until the 12th year of planting. ( Pistachio trees begin bearing the 5th year after budding. However, a significant crop is not harvested until the seventh or eighth season. The first full production year starts occurring around 12th year only). The easy identification of maturity is when the hull separates easily from the shell. Generally, this period extends for 6 to 10 days. Care should be taken while harvesting by avoiding underdeveloped kernels.
Yield in Pistachio Cultivation:- Yield of the Pistachio nuts mainly depends on climate , cultivar (variety) and crop management practices. On an average a yield of 8 to 10 kg per fully matured tree (After 10 to 12 year of budding) can be obtained.
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Although popularly known as a nut, the fruit of the pistachio is classified botanical as a drupe, the edible portion of which is the seed. This oblong kernel about one inch in length and one-half in diameter is protected somewhat from dust, dirt and other impurities by a thin, ivory-coloured, bony shell. When conditions are favourable, the shells split open just prior to harvest and have an appearance of a laughing face.
Pistachio Producing Areas:
The world’s major pistachio producing areas are Iran , Turkey , and the San Joaquin Valley of California. Due to the tough trade regulations with Iran , it is near impossible to find the Iranian variety in the United States . There is an import tax upwards of three hundred percent of the value of the pistachios to import Iranian pistachios. Today, Turkey is the main supplier of imported pistachios in the United States . Most of the Turkish production comes from the dry, barren foothills of western and south-eastern Turkey , principally from the regions of Gaziantep and Urfa .
During harvest, the shells often become stained and blemished. Unless camouflaged, the pistachios appear unappetising. United States importers sometimes employ a non-toxic red vegetable dye to give the nuts visual appeal. The red colour serves another purpose as well, since it appeals to consumers who are used to it and demand it. In California , however, pistachios are mechanically hulled and dried and most are not coloured and left in the unblemished, natural state.
There is considerable controversy concerning the merits of home-grown versus imported pistachios. The American importers of Turkish and Iranian pistachios describe the California counterparts as beautiful but tasteless. The California producers claim their pistachio taste about the same but are larger, fresher and easier to open. California is the only state, which produces pistachios on a commercial scale. Most of the production comes from the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys , although some small acreage has been planted in the California desert near Barstow and Mojave, as well as in other parts of the state. Under favourable conditions a pistachio tree can live and produce for centuries.
When ripe, the pistachio tree is shaken and the nuts fall to the ground to be harvested. Following harvest, the nuts must be hulled and dried within twenty-four hours to maintain their high quality and unblemished appearance. The nuts are dried with forced air at 150 to 160 degrees. The moisture content, which was as high as forty-five percent in the freshly harvested nuts, is reduced to five percent in about ten hours. “Electric eye” sorters then spot and remove blemished nuts to be dyed or shelled. The good quality is then graded and about ninety percent are roasted and salted in their shell for consumption. Shelled pistachios are utilised commercially in confectionery, ice cream, candies, sausages, bakery goods and flavouring.
Today, pistachios remain one of the most popular nuts for people of all ages. Approximately, three hundred million pounds of California in shell pistachio nuts are grown annually in this country.