Most of the news at the 2014 Annual Pistachio Conference hosted by Paramount Farms sounded as “Wonderful” as the brand hawked by the farming giant.

But some of it didn’t match that term, including talk of the driest year in California history and word of a courtroom setback issued the same day that 600 people gathered in Visalia to hear Paramount’s annual report and mark the 20th anniversary of the company’s partnership with 580 growers.

It was at the conference that participants learned that federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld the science used in fish protection plans that often cut back water pumping for San Joaquin Valley farmers.

 

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A panel of Paramount representatives said it will take some time to pore through the 160-page ruling and to determine what effect the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision will have. The ruling overturned a lower court ruling that had held that protections for delta smelt in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta were not supported by science.

Some say the decision won't have any practical effect on water flows since protections for the smelt were kept in place while the lower court ruling was appealed.

The news failed to totally dampen what was mostly an upbeat conference that spotlighted continuing financial success for the industry at the same time that it nears a billion-pound crop that is expected to be in place by 2020.

And even talk of the drought was tempered by assurances that Paramount has long been engaged in research on water use and pistachio trees can weather drought conditions better than trees that produce other nuts.

Paramount has thrived, said Andrew Anzlaldo, director of grower relations, by “building demand ahead of supply” to maintain profitable grower prices. Both he and Stewart Resnick, Paramount Farms president, said that has been made possible because the company has a 60 percent share of the pistachio market.

 

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It is hoping to increase that share to 70 percent, further enabling it to fund continued marketing outreach worldwide.

“Our focus is to keep that high level return constant in the future,” Resnick said.

Super Bowl, Dr. Oz

A two-part Super Bowl commercial for Wonderful pistachios by the Comedy Channel’s Stephen Colbert drew considerable attention to the product, speakers said. And on a more serious note, touting of the health value of pistachios by Dr. Mehmet Oz on his television show has also been a boon to the industry.

Both of those developments were spawned by Paramount players, including nutritionist Maggie Moon, senior communications manager, who talked of the funding of a Harvard study that showed a daily serving of pistachios may help you live longer.

Moon talked of outreach to “health influencers” such as Dr. Oz and Hungry Girl, a best-selling author on healthy eating.

 

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Mark Seguin, vice president for domestic marketing, talked of the creation of a buzz about the Super Bowl commercials before the event and promotion of Wonderful pistachios at the Super Bowl site with everything from billboards to signs in 7,000 taxi cabs, along with the use of social media.

Seguin said some $200 million has been spent in the five years of the Get Crackin’ campaign to call attention to the brand. More television ads featuring Colbert are in the works and three begin airing in March.

In a brief video, Colbert said to growers, “You keep pickin’ that nut and I’ll keep pushin’ that nut.”

Resnick said he prides himself on the fact that the company does not contract out for services of people who include Moon and Seguin: “They’re full time employees who don’t have a conflict on what they’re going to focus on; it’s all about pistachios.”

The company has also spent considerable time and money in community outreach and education efforts, which was discussed by Lynda Resnick, vice chairman and co-owner of Roll Global and wife of Stewart Resnick.

Much of that philanthropy has focused on the small town of Lost Hills in Kern County, home to a significant population of people who work for Paramount. But efforts and funding have gone well beyond that location and projects that have addressed the well-being of employees elsewhere in the San Joaquin Valley.

 

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Among the latest efforts is planned creation of model programs at four sites: McFarland, Sanger and Avenal high schools and Paramount Academy in Delano. Students in those programs can graduate with associate college degrees and get paid apprenticeships with Paramount.

Lynda Resnick talked of outreach programs for parents as well.

“Our children in the Central Valley deserve a better chance,” she said.

Beware of media hype

Here are some other observations made at the conference:

• A pistachio tree that was not irrigated for years still leafed out and had “a tiny crop,” said Joe Macilvaine, president of Paramount Farming.

“We’re fairly certain our pistachio trees will not suffer death even from complete removal of water,” he said. “That’s not true of almonds; almonds will die.”

A deep root system in pistachios enables them to extract water down to 20 feet.

 

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Macilvaine said he has been working with researchers who include University of California water management specialist David Goldhamer since the late 1980s.

His work has shown, among other things, that deprivation of water during nut fill has the greatest effect on trees.

• Beware of “media hype” surrounding the drought, said Steve Johnson, a meteorologist with Atmosphere Group International, whose address was not part of the Paramount program, but followed that event.

Johnson said talk of relief possibly coming from development of an El Nino system in the Pacific is off the mark. He pointed out that at best it would likely be a weak system and that a California drought in 1976-77 came during a weak El Nino.

He also said it’s best to take with a grain of salt reports on the other side of the spectrum, including speculation that the state’s “mega drought” could last for a century.

• Navel orange worm pressures continue to mount, said Candice Rogers, a field representative with Paramount.

She said poor sanitation and inadequate sprays, along with susceptibility from heat stress, can contribute to burgeoning populations. Rogers said it is important to rotate different chemical treatments to avoid development of resistance.

Paramount’s sister company, Suterra, manufactures puffers that can be placed in orchards to release pheromones that disrupt mating. She said if a grower’s reject damage is less than 1 percent, the puffers may not make economic sense, given that that the cost for puffers amounts to about $100 an acre.

But Rogers said it could pay if damage is greater than 2 percent and the grower has run out of options to reduce damage from the insect.

• Paramount continues to expand the handling capacity at its plants, said Dave Szeflin, vice president of operations.

“This year we’re doubling the capacity in Firebaugh,” he said.

He said the expansion is among steps that help reduce costs to growers and “spread our risk.”

 

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