By the time California’s pistachio growers finished shaking their trees late last October, they had brought in their second biggest-ever crop — a total of 448 million pounds of nuts. That’s at the top end of the range of earlier projections by industry observers who had estimated that the 2011 crop — an off-year for the alternative bearing trees — would weigh in at between about 400 and 450 million pounds.

This final figure, released by the Administrative Committee for Pistachios, is down from the record 2010 crop of 528 million pounds. But, it’s a hefty jump up from the 354-million-pound crop of 2009.

Last year’s cooler-than-usual spring temperatures favored development of larger shells. As a result, many growers harvested nuts that were about a size larger than typical, says Richard Matoian, executive director of the American Pistachio Association, based in Fresno, Calif. “There may have been a little more staining due to fairly heavy rain during harvest, but insect damage tended to be lower than normal.” Like 2010, when growers experienced similar weather during the season, the 2011 harvest started about a week later than usual. But, with a smaller crop, growers completed their harvest by the end of October. In 2010 they worked into November to finish up.

Because of a higher-than-normal carryover from the huge 2010 production, prices initially offered growers for their newly-harvested 2011 crop were at about $2.20 per pound for open in-shell nuts. Although a little lower than a year earlier, those prices are still strong. Matoian expects pistachio prices to remain stable, if not increase, through the rest of this marketing year which ends Aug. 31.

“In the meantime, demand for U.S. pistachios continues to grow, especially in China and other Asian markets, which continue to be bright spots for our producers,” he says.

This past fall, Matoian notes, India reduced its tariff on U.S. products from 30 percent to 10 percent and the recent signing of a free-trade agreement will eliminate a 30-percent tariff on U.S. products going into Korea.

Also, shipments of pistachios here at home are 25 percent higher than a year ago. “In the first four months of this marketing year, we’re seeing very positive trends,” Matoian adds.

China offsets Europe

All this is particularly good news, since sales this year to Europe — long the best customer for American-grown pistachios — are questionable, given the economic problems in that area of the world. “However, the increasing demand just in China, alone, could come close to offsetting any downturn in sales to Europe,” Matoian says.

The driest December on record in most of the San Joaquin Valley is causing concern among California farmers. Many new pistachio trees will start bearing a marketable crop this year. As a result, U.S. pistachio bearing acreage is expected to increase from the approximate 140,000-acre level of last year to well above 150,000 acres this year. Also, this is an on-year for pistachio trees.

So, if the weather cooperates, Matoian wouldn’t be surprised to see growers produce a 600-million pound crop in 2012.

“Our product is in demand around the world,” he says. “By following the example of the almond industry, I’m greatly optimistic that we can market a crop of that size.”