Pistachio harvest finishes amid optimism


Issue Date: October 17, 2018
By Ching Lee
Konda Farms in Tulare County does a second shake of its pistachio trees to harvest remaining nuts. Pistachio harvest is nearing completion in the state, with many growers reporting a robust crop with minimal insect damage.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons
Many of the state’s pistachio orchards are in an “on” year of the alternate-bearing trees, which have produced yields this year that could break the 2016 volume record.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons

Despite early worries about weather and an ongoing trade conflict that could undermine their biggest export market, California pistachio growers say they expect to have a good year with a potential record crop of excellent quality.

Harvest is nearly complete, with growers throughout the state reporting robust yields and minimal insect damage to their pistachios. For many farmers, this is considered an "on" year for the alternate-bearing crop, but even for those whose trees are on a light-production year, yields are higher than expected.

"It's amazing," Madera County grower Chris Wylie said. "It's unlike any season I've ever seen. This could end up being one of the best crops in years."

He expressed particular excitement about the quality of the nuts. Even though his harvest came later than usual, which could result in more insect damage, Wylie said navel orangeworm pressure remained low throughout harvest, with no staining on the nuts.

He said growers he's talked to have reported similar results. With such "beautiful" crops across the state, Wylie said he expects most growers will earn bonuses from processors.

Production is estimated at 850 million to 950 million pounds this year, according to Richard Matoian, executive director of American Pistachio Growers. If closer to the latter, it would break the 2016 record of 896.5 million pounds.

Early in the year, growers sounded alarms that lack of rain and chilling hours could hurt production, but late spring rains and a cold March "really helped," Matoian said.

"The bloom period was also much longer than is typical," said Zack Raven, grower services manager for Keenan Farms, a pistachio grower and processor in Kings County. "Seasoned growers weren't totally sure what this would mean for the crop. All weather variables considered, coupled with aggressive efforts to control insects on the farm, this crop is not only large but excellent in quality and consistency."

Marketing a potential record crop could prove challenging any year. Add to that international trade disputes and retaliatory tariffs imposed by China—the top export market for U.S. pistachios—and it could mean lower prices for growers. But those in the business did not voice much concern.

"China really likes our pistachios, so it's going to be interesting to see how all that plays out," said Laura Gutile, a grower in Madera County. "But I don't think anybody in the pistachio industry is panicking just yet."

Matoian said despite the larger crop and higher tariffs, processors report "strong demand domestically and around the world for pistachios," with product movement continuing to be "very good at this time."

What has helped, he said, is that production problems in Iran—the world's No. 2 pistachio producer behind the U.S. and its chief competitor—reduced the crop by a third of average. In a more typical year, Iran produces about 25 to 30 percent of the world's volume. Turkey, the world's third-largest producer, grows a much different variety of pistachios, he added.

"If someone wants to buy pistachios, they can only really source them from the United States," Matoian said.

Tulare County grower Ken Curti pointed out that processors "were almost all out of product when we started harvesting," so buyers have been eagerly waiting for this new crop.

"It normally works out all right," he said. "There's always new markets to be had. There's other countries out there besides China that are becoming more interested in our product."

Raven said foreign buyers increasingly turn to the Golden State for its "large, high quality nut and consistent supply." With strong worldwide demand and a small crop in Iran, there could be a supply shortfall by about 200 million pounds, he estimated.

"There will not be an issue marketing California pistachios this year," he said.

Matoian said marketers will also look to develop additional customers, including in India, South Korea and the Middle East. He noted the organization plans to apply for trade-promotion funding the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made available as part of a federal aid package to help farmers hurt by retaliatory tariffs.

Fresno County grower Jamie Bledsoe said market prices for pistachios so far appear to be holding, though it will be a break-even year for him. His trees are on an "off" year, but still produced very good yields with excellent quality on the first shake and little worm damage on the second shake, he said.

"I think we're going to be very comparable to last year's prices, even with a bigger crop, because of world supply issues," he said.

Bledsoe said he thinks the quality of American pistachios sets the product apart from other world competitors. Processor incentives and requirements for growers to control aflatoxins and cut navel orangeworm damage so the nuts are less blemished and more marketable have helped with that endeavor, he added.

Wylie said he wishes he could put a finger on what growers did right this year to have achieved the quality of this year's crop, as he would love to replicate the results. He noted some almond growers practiced the same orchard management but still saw higher insect pressure this year.

Craig Kallsen, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Kern County, said weather is instrumental in crop outcomes, as is timing of the nut's development and how that coincides with the stage of the navel orangeworms when they are most damaging.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.