California pistachio leaders concede that the industry’s rapid growth is riding on the coattails of paths blazed by almond and walnut pacesetters.

The U.S. pistachio industry appreciates those opened doors.

“You can’t go into a grocery store and swing a dead cat without finding something with an almond in it,” said Jim Zion, American Pistachio Growers (APG) chairman of the board. “We’d love to have the same situation for pistachios. We are working on that.”

Zion’s honesty is kudos to California almond and walnut industry leaders who have convinced the world that California tree nuts are the closest thing to nature’s most perfect food. APG is pushing to add pistachios to the total nut mix in major export footholds in China and a plethora of destinations across the continents.

Zion shared his U.S. pistachio industry vision during the 2011 Arizona Pistachio Association annual meeting held in late October in southeastern Arizona in Willcox (Cochise County). Cochise is the largest pistachio-producing county in the Grand Canyon State.

California growers produce 98 percent of the U.S. pistachio crop. Top-producing counties include Kern, Fresno, Tulare, Madera, and Kings.  Arizona and New Mexico farmers produce the balance of the crop.

Today, about 40 percent of world pistachio production is supplied by U.S. growers compared to 18 percent in 1998.

In California, pistachios are the No. 2 nut dollar wise – an amazing feat since the first commercial planting of pistachio trees occurred just 35 years ago in 1976.

In 2010, California almonds generated $2.8 billion in cash income, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Pistachios chimed in as a $1.15 billion money-maker. Walnuts broke the billion-dollar barrier at $1.06 billion.

Over the last three consecutive years, the U.S. took the seat as the largest pistachio grower in the world - having swept Iran, the previous leader, under the rug to second position.

“From now on, the U.S. will out produce Iran in pistachios,” predicted Zion, managing partner with Meridian Nut Growers in Clovis, Calif. “Our (U.S.) production is going up while their production is going down.”

As the 2011 U.S. pistachio harvest season wraps up, Zion forecasts pistachio production across California, Arizona, and New Mexico in the 450 million pound range. Iranian growers will likely harvest about 330 million pounds.

Four countries produce 95 percent of worldwide pistachio production including the U.S., Iran, Turkey, and Syria.