Sacramento Valley rises as pistachio production region

Issue Date: September 23, 2020
By Christine Souza
Yolo County farmer Ryan Payne says he considers pistachios a good crop for the Sacramento Valley, because they provide crop diversification and because they can tolerate boron,which is found soil and water in parts of the county.
Photo/Christine Souza
Employees harvest Golden Hills-variety pistachios at Payne Farms in Yolo County. The county agricultural commissioner reported 10,800 total acres of pistachios growing in the county in 2019.
Photo/Christine Souza

A shift has taken place with the state's pistachio plantings: New acreage has been popping up in the Sacramento Valley counties of Yolo, Sacramento, Solano and Colusa—hundreds of miles north of the main growing area in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Pistachios have thrived in the San Joaquin Valley due to the region's fertile soil, hot, dry climate and moderately cold winters. About 80% of the state's production comes from Kern, Fresno and Tulare counties.

But in Yolo County, pistachios have emerged as a top-10 crop, with a value of $19.4 million last year. The county had 10,800 acres of pistachio orchards in 2019, about 6,290 of which were bearing.

"I wouldn't say pistachios are new; they've been here for a while," Yolo County Interim Agricultural Commissioner Dave Guerrero said. "Over the last five to seven years, if you drive through the county, you can see that pistachio acreage continues to increase."

This year's Yolo County pistachio harvest is in full swing.

Ryan Payne, a fifth-generation farmer for Payne Farms in Woodland, said his family grows about 500 acres of pistachios, which were planted in 2014. Farmers in the area have planted more pistachios for many reasons, he said, including that they are a suitable crop for the region, and that prices for other crops haven't been as strong and farmers are looking for alternatives.

"We were originally focused almost entirely on processing tomatoes and in 2005, we made the first switch into trees," Payne said. "A problem that we didn't know about back then was the area's high boron toxicity, and in walnuts and almonds, it can cause full-field collapse."

Payne, who also grows processing tomatoes, sunflowers, garbanzo beans, alfalfa and safflower, said pistachios can handle boron a lot better "and are appearing to be a much better fit."

Tolerating the element boron is among the top reasons Yolo County farmers are planting pistachios, according to Katherine Jarvis-Shean, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Yolo, Solano and Sacramento counties.

In parts of Yolo County, she said, the watershed that runs through the Capay Valley and Woodland has historically contained boron, "which is something that plants need a little bit of, but too much is toxic." However, she said, "pistachios, as a plant, really eat boron for breakfast—so farmers plant pistachios."

Six years ago, Jarvis-Shean said, there were "probably about 500 acres of pistachios in Yolo County and there's probably 10,000 acres now, so it's been a real skyrocketing and recent phenomenon."

She said the increase has been motivated in part because nut crops have had good returns and are largely mechanized, so they don't require as much labor.

"The vast majority (of pistachios) is going in old tomato ground, which has traditionally been in that row-crop rotation of tomato, corn and sunflower," Jarvis-Shean said.

Possible trade-offs of growing the crop in Northern California, she said, include cooler temperatures and lighter yields.

"Our nights cool down with the delta-breeze influence, so we're better in terms of chill, but (the San Joaquin Valley is) better in terms of heat, which gives a better split," Jarvis-Shean said. "In both of those scenarios, genetics and breeding are helping out. As far as splits are concerned, we have new varieties, especially Golden Hills, which has a higher split percentage than Kerman, our traditional variety."

Reid Robinson, vice president of Sierra Gold Nurseries in Yuba City, said most of its pistachio trees go to San Joaquin Valley growers, but some business remains in the north from the "sleeper pistachio industry."

"Yolo County kind of exploded," Robinson said, "and I think that is because growers saw that it was working and then jumped on, but there's always been a few (pistachios) in basically every county in the Sacramento Valley. A lot of guys were looking to diversify and they chose pistachios; I think they've been happy with the results."

Those who farm pistachios in the north may also be looking to the area for its reliable water supply, Jarvis-Shean said, adding that farmers must balance groundwater supplies as required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

"Folks are looking at the long haul and, from an investment perspective, are aware that the (Sacramento Valley) water will be more available in the future," she said. "We have a lot more precipitation here during the winter, and folks are considering compliance with SGMA, how fast the groundwater recharges and how much precipitation you get, so that's playing into these long-term decisions."

Thom Dille, chief executive officer of Little Creek Inc., a pistachio grower, processor and marketer based in Lincoln in Sacramento County, said Northern California has had plenty of 5-acre, 10-acre and 20-acre orchards throughout the region. Dille grows pistachios in Kern County, but said he would consider growing pistachios in the north.

"In fact, if we had the wherewithal we'd probably start right away," he said, pointing out that starting a pistachio orchard requires a seven-year investment.

Although Northern California offers more plentiful water and favorable weather, Dille and others pointed to the challenge of not having a local processor.

Regarding the practicality of getting a pistachio processor in the north, Jarvis-Shean said, "it's 10,000 acres in Yolo, plus what else is outside of Yolo gets us in the ballpark of 15,000 acres, which is about 6% of the industry as a whole, which is not huge but certainly warrants a processing plant or two."

The California pistachio crop this year is estimated to reach 1 billion pounds, but the American Pistachio Growers organization said it believes the final crop could be a little less, closer to 900 million pounds to 1 billion pounds, due to a lack of chill and erratic weather during bloom.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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




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