Over more than three decades of growing pistachio trees, first as a nurseryman and then as a producer, Tom Coleman, Fresno, Calif., has learned a thing or two about tending to them. One of his lessons is the devastating speed and power of a horde of hungry grasshoppers. That was eight years ago, a few months after he had planted 160 acres of seedling trees on former wheat and cotton ground southeast of Madera.

At the time the insects descended on the field, Coleman was in a meeting. “A friend called and told me the grasshoppers were moving into the trees in Biblical proportions,”Coleman recalls. “I knew we had grasshoppers around here. But, they were attacking the trees like you can’t believe. They were eating them to death.”

His irrigated orchard was an inviting green, luscious target in an area of ripe stands of wheat and dried grasslands as the grasshoppers moved out of the foothills that summer in search of more succulent food.

“We threw everything we could think of at them,” Coleman says. “We put out poison bait. We sprayed pesticides. And we treated the trees with a crop protectant, containing a clay material (Surround), in an attempt to deter the grasshoppers from feeding on them. They moved in so quickly and so heavily that, even when you drove down the row with a sprayer, as soon as the tractor reached them, they’ve just move 20 feet and escape being sprayed. Every other week we’d send a truck to the nursery to get more trees to replant and spray again.”

The battle ended with the arrival of fall. However, Coleman’s problems weren’t over yet.

“I made a classic mistake,” he admits. Having lost ground to the grasshoppers in getting his seedlings off to a strong start, he fed and watered them longer than he would have normally. Then, So, to shut down the trees’ activity in time to protect them from the cold temperatures of winter, he sprayed them with zinc sulfate to defoliate them. When that failed, he hit the trees with a second, stronger dose. “I still couldn’t burn the leaves off,” he relates. “The trees didn’t shut down and a frost killed a bunch of them.”

His lessons in pistachio production will continue this year. In early April he expects to learn how much a freeze this past November damaged some seedlings planted early last summer west of Fresno near Tranquility.

Coleman began growing pistachio trees in the late 1970s, when he owned an ornamental tree and shrub nursery and was asked by a pistachio grower to supply some seedlings. At the same time, construction activity and sales of ornamental stock were beginning to decline. Producing pistachio nuts seemed a more attractive alternative.

So, in 1982, Coleman bought a 20-acre mature pistachio orchard. The next year he purchased a second 20-acre field of producing pistachio trees. In 1985, he planted his first pistachio orchard, a 160-acre block of trees.

Today, Coleman Farming Company owns several pistachio orchards in Fresno and Madera counties. They include 500 acres of Kerman variety trees that are in production and 240 acres of Golden Hills. A University of California cultivar released in 2005, it should produce its first marketable crop in 2015. Adding the earlier-maturing Golden Hills to his mix is designed to spread the harvest work and the risks of adverse weather over a longer period when it’s time to shake the trees. The company also manages a little over 700 more acres of pistachios for several other growers.

Biggest crop in history

In addition to his work in the field, Coleman chairs the California Pistachio Research Board which funds research on pistachio production and is vice chair of the Administrative Committee for Pistachios, a federal marketing order. The pistachio industry is coming off the biggest crop in history. Last year, California growers brought in 521 million pounds (inshell) of nuts. Meanwhile, Arizona and New Mexico farmers produced 8 million pounds for a total 2010 crop of 529 million pounds. The previous record was the 415-million-pound harvest in 2007.

Like producers of other California tree nuts, Coleman and his fellow pistachio growers are profiting from continued growth in pistachio demand worldwide. Pistachio prices are at a record high of around 2.50 per pound. That’s up more than 40 percent from the roughly $2.22 per pound growers received for their 2009 pistachios. Some of that increase reflects expectations earlier in the 2010 crop year for a much smaller crop – in the mid-300 million-pound or even lower range – than was actually harvested. Pistachio growers normally sign contracts to sell their nuts before harvest. The higher prices processors offered growers last August were based on the lower, pre-harvest production estimates.

As an alternate bearing tree, the size of the pistachio crop fluctuates from one year to the next. Coleman was satisfied with his 2010 off-year yields that ranged from about 3,000 to 4,000 pounds per acre. In the on-year of 2009, production averaged around 3,500 pounds per acre, with his better orchards producing as much as 5,000 pounds per acre.

This past winter he pruned his trees a little heavier than the previous winter to prepare for the expected higher 2011 production. “Going into an on-year like this one, pistachio trees seem to overcome the loss of buds from pruning,” Coleman says. “The remaining buds are more viable with a higher rate of pollination and produce more nuts.”

His trees are planted 16 feet apart within rows, which rows are spaced 20 feet apart. The more common spacing is 17-by-19 feet. “I’d rather crowd the trees a little in the row and keep the middles open more,” he explains. “Otherwise, the trees can get pretty tight between rows. If you’re not careful when going down the middles with equipment you end up knocking nuts off the trees.”

Coleman’s spacing results in 135 trees per acre. That’s close enough to get a large number of trees, but not so dense that trees have to be pulled out because of crowding, he adds.

Except for that one invasion by grasshoppers, Coleman’s insecticide program has kept insect pressures very low, he reports. From time to time over the years, Botryosphaeria panicle and shoot blight have infected some of his older trees during wet weather at bloom. Alternaria, another fungal disease, can pose problems for pistachio trees from spring through July. It hasn’t caused growers in his area of the San Joaquin Valley as much trouble as it has farther south, he reports.

Coleman fertiligates his trees, all on drip systems, with nitrogen, potassium and boron. Some of the boron as well as copper and zinc are sprayed on the leaves. “Getting enough zinc for our trees on the Madera County ranches is a constant battle,” he says. He tries to finish the nitrogen applications by the end of July and continues applying the remaining nutrients until the end of August.

Unlike some growers who apply large quantities of nutrients two or three times a year, Coleman feed his trees smaller amounts more frequently throughout the season, starting with the first irrigation. “I think the trees are better able to take up the nutrients when you spoon-feed them a little at a time and always with water rather than dumping on a whole lot a few times a year.”

Also, he says, this approach helps improve water infiltration on his surface-irrigated fields, where salts in the fertilizers impede water movement in the soil. “Smaller, consistent fertilizer applications with water seem to work just as well as gypsum in keeping the soil loose,” he says. “Also, it’s easier to do.”

Marketing and water

When it comes to marketing, Coleman sells half of each year’s crop to one processor and splits the rest between three others, alternating each new load of nuts among them. A crop consultant reviews all the grading sheets and compares the results from the four buyers. “That way I have a pretty good idea if one processor is grading differently than another,” Coleman says.

Coleman’s drip-irrigated orchards use surface or well water or a combination of the two, depending on the particular ranch. For example, his largest property, a 300-acre block in Madera County, is irrigated with both. Two years ago, he spent $180,000 to put in a well that produces only 300 to 350 gallons of water per minute, far short of what he needs. That well plus the four others on the ranch provide no more than about half the total water required to produce a crop. The rest is provided by his local irrigation district using San Joaquin River water stored behind the Friant Dam in Millerton Reservoir.

Because of his subordinate rights to that water, Coleman pays a higher rate for it than does a Class 1 priority user. As a result, he gets his water from special supplies, which the irrigation district orders and which he pays for prior to the beginning of each irrigation season.

“My wells start out the year strong, but they’re not supplying what I need by August, when the demand for water by pistachio trees is the highest,” Coleman says. “So, I figure out how much additional water I’ll need then and that’s what I buy before the season starts. Often, in January, I have no idea how much, if any, surface water I’ll actually get in August. That makes planning kind of tough.”

Going into the year, thinking that water supplies would be short, he purchased quite a bit of water, at $228 an-acre-foot. He planned to delay using it as long as possible. However, more surface water was available than anticipated and the price had dropped to $150 an acre-foot. So, to conserve well water, he bought and used the cheaper surface water in the spring. “In August, I got a call that no more water would be available from the district that year after the end of the month,” Coleman says. “So, I did what I could to get the crop harvested as early as possible. Then, in October, when I was done harvesting, the irrigation district called again to tell me that more water was available.”

His pre-purchase price last year and this year - $275-per-acre-foot - is the most he’s ever paid for water to irrigate his Madera County orchards. In the mid-1980s, he was paying as little as $80 for the same amount of water. That compares to his ranch near Tranquility, in a different irrigation district, where now he can buy as much water as he wants for $47 per acre-foot.

Complicating Coleman’s job of managing water is uncertainty about the future impacts of plans to use some of the water from the Millerton Lake to help improve salmon habitat in the San Joaquin River. That would affect his largest ranch in Madera County. “It’s likely that my irrigation district will lose more water than any of the others. Because of my subordinate rights, the impact will bear down on me more than growers with Class I rights.”

His long-term strategy for dealing with this situation? “My hedge will be to buy more expensive land with better water rights,” he responds.

Soaring industry

Coleman expects the current good times that he and other growers are enjoying to continue, at least for a while.

“The industry is doing very, very well,” he says. “Nothing I see at the moment concerns me about our industry and that’s what concerns me.  Are things really as good as they look? I believe they actually are. The California pistachio industry has a pretty bright future.”

Pistachio sales rebounded quickly from the salmonella scare in 2009 that depressed the market severely for about two months. The industry met that challenge head-on, he notes. Paramount Farms launched a major advertising campaign, Get Crackin’, while the rest of the processors, through the Western Pistachio Association, launched their Green Nut marketing and promotion program. Both efforts succeeded in restoring consumer confidence in pistachios as a safe, wholesome food, Coleman says.

“The Administrative Committee for Pistachios continues to work on protecting food safety and food quality,” he says. “I’ve been very impressed by how the industry has moved from basically a farm product to a food grade product. Processors have spent huge amounts of money to improve sanitary procedures to amazingly high levels.”

Despite the attractive prices growers have been receiving in recent years, Coleman doubts they have overplanted as they’ve added new acreage to their orchards.

The strong demand for pistachios, which are grown in only a few areas of the world, continues to strengthen and California producers are in a unique position to capitalize on it, he contends. The importance of Iran as a major pistachio producer continues to decline, due to lack of adequate water quality to irrigate orchards. “Most observers seem to agree that Iran has seen its heyday,” Coleman says. “Syria and Turkey also grow pistachios but export little of their production. That leaves California, which is pretty much it as the major producer in the world.”

To help ensure that California’s pistachio growers can maintain their edge in producing a top quality crop, The California Pistachio Research Board is considering endowing a chair at the university level to conduct reach on pistachio production. “The researchers doing this work now are approaching retirement and the University of California system lacks the money to replace them,” Coleman says. “The board is looking at possibly funding some of this work. It’s exciting that the industry is in a financial position to consider this kind of investment in our future.”