California’s pistachio growers started harvesting their crop this year later than they wanted to — a good 10 days or more. However, by the time all the numbers are added up, they’re expected to have brought in their second biggest crop ever behind last year’s record-breaking performance.

“Production was really off in some orchards, but overall it’s been another good year for California,” says Richard Matoian, executive director of the American Pistachio Growers, based in Fresno, Calif. “The crop was a little heavier west of Highway 99 than to the east.”

This year’s delayed harvest was due to cooler-than-normal temperatures throughout much of the growing season, particularly in the spring. That delayed development and maturity of the crop, increasing the threat of crop damage from wet fall weather. By the time the first rain of the season fell in early October, the majority of the crop had been trucked to processors. That rain stopped field work for about a day and caused some staining of the nuts still hanging in the orchards.

Pistachios are alternate bearing and this was the off-year.

After a 521-million pound crop last year, the 2011 crop was projected early on to come in at 400 to 450 million pounds. However, by mid-October growers had already harvested 446 million pounds.

The unexpectedly larger off-year crop reflects more acres coming into production.

Not only did the crop size increase, the size of the nuts has increased, too. “One thing we are hearing across the board is the pistachios are larger this year,” Matoian says. “Many more are in the 18 to 20-count range.” Pistachio size is measured in terms the number of nuts per ounce of weight.

The United States pistachio industry counts about 850 growers in Arizona, California and New Mexico. In California, which accounts for 98.5 percent of the annual U.S. production, pistachios are grown in the San Joaquin Valley from San Bernadino County north to Tehama County. Kern County leads the state in pistachio production with over 50 percent of the total crop. Other top-producing counties are Madera, Kings, Tulare and Fresno.

The opening prices for the 2011 crops are reported to be between $1.90 and $2.10 per pound. That compares to last year’s opening price of $2.50 per pound.

Carryover

The 150-million pound carryover of pistachios from last year’s crop to the 2011 marketing year contributed to this year’s lower opening price. “The industry isn’t surprised or too concerned about this level of carryover,” Matoian says. “Demand by foreign buyers continues to increase and people on the marketing side see no problems in selling the volumes they have. However, it’s incumbent for the industry to continue doing a good job in developing markets for our crops in the coming years.”

This was the second year in a row that Robinson Farms started harvesting pistachios in mid-September. Normally, harvest gets underway about two weeks earlier. “If we can start around the first of September the odds of getting rain during harvest are really reduced,” says Gary Robinson, Hanford, Calif. In addition to growing his own pistachios, he manages pistachio orchards for other owners in the Westlands Water District of western Fresno County.

“We have a three-week period during which we push hard for seven long days a week to complete the harvesting,” he says.

Rains totaling a half to three-quarters of an inch on Oct. 5 stopped harvesting for only a day. Generally, rain during harvest increases staining of the nuts,” Robinson says. “But, we had most of the crop picked before the rain and we picked the balance within four days. We had very little staining this year.”

He’s pleased with the above-average production of his trees. Yields in his mature blocks ranged from about 3,500 to 4,000 pounds per acre.

“Yield-wise we did as well or better this year as last year,” he says.

Fortunately, navel orangeworm was not a problem this year.  “I don’t know why damage from the insect was so low,” he says. “Over the years I’ve learned that just about the time we think we have navel orangeworm figured out it jumps up and bites us.”

The size of his pistachios were average to a little larger than usual. The percentage of closed shells was average in some fields and very low in others, he notes.

“It was a mild summer and the trees never looked stressed,” Robinson says. “So, I’m wondering if the nut load was more comfortable for the trees and they responded with fewer closed shells.

After starting 10 to 14 days later than usual, Andrew Farms, Inc., Madera, Calif., finished harvesting its 1,700 acres of pistachios before rain moved into the area in early October. It was an off-year for most of the older, 15-year-old and production was down from last year’s big crop, reports Mathew Andrew. On average, they produced about 1,000 pounds of nuts per acre this year, although yields dropped to 200 pounds per acre on the least-productive block. However, the five to seven-year-old trees put on a big crop, averaging 2,400 to 2,600 pounds per acre.

Although smaller than last year, the nuts from this crop were average in size and showed little to no navel orangeworm damage. He credits that to this season’s growing conditions and a timely insecticide spray in late August.

Good quality

“In general, quality looks good,” Andrew says. “It was a good average year for our pistachios. We struggled to control disease during the wet weather early in the season, but the summer was really nice and mild. But, overall, with the weather holding for us through harvest, we can’t complain.”

Pistachio grower Tom Coleman, Fresno, Calif., isn’t complaining, either. Like others his harvest started late this year. His first load left the orchard on Sept. 20 – a good 10 days later than usual. The last load from his 750 acres of trees in Fresno and Madera counties went out on Oct. 13.

The late harvest prompted Coleman to take extra steps to protect his crop from navel orangeworm (NOW).

Normally, he sprays his trees with an insecticide once a season, in late May. Usually, that protects the nuts from the first and second generations of NOW until he can harvest them before the third generation poses a threat. But, with this year’s delayed harvest, the pistachios were still on the trees and vulnerable to late-summer infestations by the third generation of the insect. So, for the first time in more than 30 years, he made two more navel orangeworm sprays, once in August and again in September. This extra cost paid off, he says. Just about every load of nuts he shipped to processors had no insect damage.

Over the past six years, Coleman has been shaking some of his trees a second time to get nuts that weren’t ripe enough to fall off with the first shake. “It takes about 30 days to harvest all our trees,” he says. “I have to start early enough to complete the harvest before it gets too late and the rains start. But, by starting earlier, that means some of the crop isn’t ripe. So, I get what is ready and come back later to get the rest.”

This year he did a two-shake harvest on 160 acres of his heaviest-producing trees.

“Based on what other growers have told me, pistachio production in the state was a very mixed bag, this year,” says Coleman, vice chair of the Administrative Committee for Pistachios, a Federal Marketing Order for pistachios grown in the United States. “In a few orchards in Madera County, the crop was so light that growers didn’t even harvest a crop. And, I’ve heard of others that had the same experience I did — a decent harvest last year and an even better one this year.”

In fact, in three blocks of trees — 18, 19 and 21 years old — he harvested his best yields ever. His heaviest block produced 5,300 pounds of pistachios per acre. That compares to the 2,000-pound per acre yield from his youngest trees, nine years old.

“Except for one block, production this year definitely was a little higher than last year,” Coleman says. “In terms of total production from our orchards this was the best year ever.”

And that’s in what normally would have been an off-year for his alternate-bearing pistachio trees. He suspects this year’s high yields were the result of just so-so production in 2010. “Last year was only an OK on-year, not a strong one, but not bad either,” he says. “As a result, he reasons, his trees had more vigor to push new fruit wood for this year.”

He rates the quality of his pistachios this year as very good, based on nut size, low closed shell percentage and very low levels of insect damage. “Overall, in terms of quality, I think the industry had a pretty good year,” Coleman says.