With 40 percent of the American pistachio industry’s plantings about to mature, pistachio farmers are getting creative in developing markets for California’s fourth largest agricultural export.  Having just wrapped up another record harvest, growers from the industry’s trade association, American Pistachio Growers (APG), are in China this week to promote the green nut with an equally iconic American pitch partner — Miss California.

The promotional tour kicked off this week, and is being received with enthusiasm by Chinese consumers and media.  At a VIP event hosted by APG in Shanghai, 50 media representatives with cameras flashing interviewed growers, unaccustomed to attention but happy to answer questions about farming in the U.S.  Miss California, Noelle Freeman, who has a Chinese grandmother and is bound for the Miss America pageant in January, is proving an effective ambassador for American pistachios, announcing why they were recently named the “Official Snack” of Miss California.

“This is an incredible experience,” said Zachary Sheely, whose family farms pistachios in California’s San Joaquin Valley.  “The Chinese people are expressing a sincere appreciation for the quality, safety and healthy benefits of American pistachios, and we’re more than happy to supply them.”  In China, the word for pistachio translates to “The Happy Nut.”  

At a Lotus supermarket in Shanghai’s fashionable financial district, shoppers are walking distance from Prada, Cartier and other high-end stores. But a personal appearance by farmers and Miss California created a frenzy usually associated with rock stars.

“We are very glad to work with the American Pistachio Growers this time,” said the General Manager of Marketing for Lotus supermarkets, Mr. William Zhou. “We see huge potential in the market of American pistachios through the promotion. It’s planned to introduce more American pistachio brands to our clients.” He continued, “We look forward to more promotional practice with APG!”

The pistachio group’s arrival was preceded by news and magazine articles.  The beauty queen and her entourage of farmers have a packed itinerary of personal appearances, television, newspaper and magazine interviews, in-store appearances and VIP events planned in Shanghai and Beijing.  In a goodwill gesture, American Pistachio Growers  presented a donation to a local charitable organization.  

China has been identified as one of our priority markets, and the enthusiasm we’re seeing here explains why,” said Jim Zion, APG chairman.  “Consumers want to meet the people who produce their food, regardless of where it originates.  Our growers have committed to personally reach out to their customers—even in China--to make that happen.”

Pistachio exports to China

While 250,000 acres are planted in California, Arizona and New Mexico, only 145,000 acres are producing a crop at this time (more than 98 percent are grown in California).  Pistachio trees take seven years to bear fruit.  Based on industry data, the current plantings will double the size of the crop from 2009 levels by 2017 to 800 million pounds. This raises the question, How to create demand ahead of the anticipated 40 percent of planted orchards that will begin producing over the next five years?

Farmers are looking to China, where a growing, health-minded middle class with an affinity for American products have generated an increase in volume sales since 2003/04 of more than 7,000 percent.  

The U.S. is now the No. 1 global producer of pistachios, surpassing Iran in 2008. As one of the fastest growing agricultural crops in the U.S., pistachios surged to the No. 4 spot of California agricultural exports in 2010.

Pistachio exports to China

Fiscal Year            Pounds            Farm Gate Value

  • 2010/11           79,821,916      $177,204,653
  • 2009/10           59,074,013      $121,101,726
  • 2008/09           54,291,729      $110,755,127
  • 2007/08           30,928,410      $63,403,240
  • 2006/07           12,867,604      $24,319,771
  • 2005/06           3,974,571        $8,147,870
  • 2004/05           6,872,883        $9,209,663
  • 2003/04           1,093,760        $1,334,387