The impacts on California’s 2013 pistachio crop of hotter than normal weather in June and July and deep reductions in deliveries of surface water to growers in many areas were apparent well before the harvest wrapped up in the first week of October.
In early September, with the harvest just barely underway, Paramount Farms began revising its earlier estimate of a 550 million-pound (inshell) crop sharply downward. By Oct. 1, the growing and processing company, which represents more than 60 percent of the U.S. pistachio market, was predicting inshell pistachio production this year would total just 460 million pounds.
A higher proportion of blanks than usual accounts for much of this loss in expected production. Normally, about 10 percent to 15 percent of the pistachio shells contain no nuts. This year that figure jumped to the 25 percent to 40 percent range.
The heat spell in early July, just as the nuts were beginning to fill, hit the crop particularly hard. To fill the shells properly, pistachio trees need about half their total annual water requirement of about 36 to 48 inches during the six- to eight-week period just prior to nut fill and when the nuts are filling.
In areas where surface water deliveries were restricted, growers relied on wells or other sources of to make up the loss of ditch water. In some cases, that probably wasn’t enough.
“With the excessive heat at the time, it’s likely the trees were more stressed for water than normal,” says Andy Anzaldo, general manager of grower relations for Paramount. “So, if a grower applied the same amount of water to fields this season as in years past, it wouldn’t have been enough to support proper filling of the nuts. The blank percentage appeared to be higher on the West Side of the valley where the weather this season was hotter and drier than farther east.”
Unusually high populations of navel orangeworm also helped limit the size of this year’s pistachio crop. Over the last 20 years, the number of nuts damaged by NOW and other insects each has averaged about 1 percent. This year, as in 2012, almost 2 percent of the crop was lost to insects.
Growing conditions this year also limited nut sizes. “Although smaller than average, the nuts turned out to be larger than the record small sizes of 2007,” Anzaldo says. “They shouldn’t affect our market.”
News of the unusually high blank percentages this year may not be all bad, either. During the spring and summer, pistachio trees start growing buds that will produce the following year’s crop. “Typically, with more blanks, the trees direct more of their energy into producing more bud wood,” Anzaldo explains. “So, we anticipate that growers with adequate water along with normal chill hours and bloom weather could expect a normal on-year in 2014 with higher yields.”
One lesson growers can learn from this season, he notes is the importance of monitoring evapotranspiration rates to help ensure trees getting the water they need in a timely manner.
“Some growers got behind on their watering schedule this year due to drought during the winter and spring,” he says.
Meanwhile, in view of this year’s smaller-than-expected crop, pistachio prices are headed upward. Late last year, the 2012 pistachios final price was $2.85 per pound split inshell. This price broke the previous record of $2.68, which was set just a year earlier. But by the end of this year, Anzaldo expects the price of 2013 pistachios will exceed a $3 per pound, grower return.
Those kind of prices go a long way in explaining why growers continue to expand pistachio acreage. The industry is expected to double current levels of production and reach 1 billion pounds by 2020.
“Growers see pistachios as a good crop for the long term,” Anzaldo says. “However, in making their planting decisions, they need to look at the expected growth in production and the challenges it will pose for the industry in marketing those bigger crops.”