After a slow start, beginning in Kern County following the Labor Day weekend, the pistachio harvest had kicked into high gear throughout California’s San Joaquin Valley. Because of wide variations in nut maturity this year, many growers are expected to shake their trees a second time. As a result, this year’s already-late harvest is likely to extend into the second or third week of October, reports veteran pistachio industry member Jim Zion.
A managing partner in Meridian Nut Growers at Clovis, Calif., he’s also the new chairman of the American Pistachio Growers, formerly the Western Pistachio Association.
“It’s a good time to be a pistachio grower,” says Zion. “This is shaping up to be another good year. We’re having very good sizing of pistachios as a result of good pollination, adequate water and good weather. And, the nuts are very clean, with very little staining.”
What’s more, he says, growers in Iran, once the world’s leading pistachio producer, are facing another short crop due to unusually hot weather and inadequate supplies of irrigation water.
“This will be the third year that we’ve out-produced Iran,” Zion says.
California’s growers probably won’t get a good handle on the size of this year’s crop until all the nuts are in the bins.
“This year’s crop is very uneven in maturity,” he says. “Some growers are reporting better-than-expected yields; for others, yields are running about as expected or less. Most in the industry are putting the state’s production this year in the range of 400 million to 450 million pounds. Arizona’s crop is expected to be about 3.75 million pounds and New Mexico production this year should be less than 1 million pounds.
“Some people think the more moderate temperatures this summer helped improve sizing and nut maturity. But, I’ve found that, in this industry, as soon as you think you have things figured out, the trees teach us something new.”
So far, the percentage of closed shells is similar to last year’s 22 percent average, one of the highest California growers have seen, Zion says.
It’s still too early to determine the level of prices growers can expect for their 2011 pistachios, but he’s looking for them to be at least decent.
“Growers should be happy with the returns from their crop this year,” he says.
Meanwhile, the challenge for the industry is to keep pistachios sales growing as new plantings continue to go in. Some observers expect total U.S. production over the next 10 years to almost double, he notes.
“Through the American Pistachio Growers’ various promotion, advertising and trade relations over the years, and efforts of some individual producers and processors, we’ve been able to keep our sales a step ahead of production,” Zion says.
“We’ve moved pistachios out of the specialty holiday category and into the snack market. Now, we need to expand into the use of pistachio as ingredients in other products so shoppers can find pistachios in other supermarket aisles, like cereals, crackers, salad dressings and ice cream.”