U.S. pistachio growers are bracing for a record-sized crop this year, wondering what will happen when that crop reaches 1 billion pounds a few years from now, and bolstering their marketing treasury to make sure those nuts find a home.

That outreach has the American Pistachio Growers (APG), a voluntary trade association, bragging on pistachios for their health benefits; a doctor in England terming it the “love nut” that may help combat erectile dysfunction; and the USA Water Polo teams choosing American pistachios as their “official snack.”

Growers and others who gathered for the association’s fifth annual meeting in Visalia, Calif., heard some rah-rah talk from a beauty queen out to tout the nut. They also heard reassuring comments on the growing size of crops that were grounded in hard statistics.

“Sometime between 2018 and 2020, there will be a billion pounds produced (in the United States),” said Richard Matoian, APG’s executive director. “I know that may be a scary number to a lot of people, but we know that other industries like almonds, who were also told to be careful of a billion pounds, have not only surpassed that but surpassed 2 billion pounds.

“And we believe we can implement the same types of programs to push pistachio sales so that production of more and more each year is not a scary proposition for the industry.”

He said that from 2005 to today, except for one year, prices paid to growers have been at or above $2 per pound, and that figure does not reflect bonuses. Returns per acre “hover around $5.”

Matoian displayed charts showing that, in a year, pistachios increased in dollar sales by 46 percent and in volume sold by 43 percent.

In 2010, he said, there was both high production and a high price per pound. That record U.S. production was 528 million pounds and the crop’s value exceeded $1 billion.

Matoian said earlier expectations of a 600-million pound crop this season have been adjusted downward after growers took a closer look at their orchards. It’s now at between 550 million and 575 million pounds with harvest expected to begin in late August or early September.

“That’s still a record,” he said.

As production has increased, the Fresno-based APG has adjusted its budget for promotion upward. Matoian said the association spends 80 percent of its budget on domestic and international promotion.

The marketing budget was about $440,000 in 2007 as the association “came out of the ashes of the California Pistachio Commission,” a marketing order that was dissolved. For next year, the projected budget is at $10.5 million, more than twice what it was in 2010-2011.

Exports since 2005 have risen from under 100 million pounds to 275 million pounds.

As pistachio production increases, Matoian said, the association is working to increase consumption. “We’re poised to assist the industry in increasing consumption. Growth has been strategic and measured, and is now positioned to help market larger pistachio crops.”

In four years, he said, membership in the association has grown from 351 to 491. The bulk of the association’s production comes from California. Its members grow and process pistachios in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.

This year’s annual meeting came on the eve of opening ceremonies for the London Olympics, and afforded a chance for Judy Hirigoyen, the director of global marketing for the association, to talk of the USA Water Polo Team as spokespeople for American pistachios.

She also talked of how Miss California 2011, Noelle Freeman, toured in promotion of the “official snack.” And she introduced the new Miss California, Leah Cecil, who wore a gown she called “pistachio green” and led participants in chanting of “Vote for Miss California” (for Miss America) and “We’re nuts for Miss California.”

Health-packing pistachios

Hirigoyen showed a video from a Susan G. Komen run in Fresno at which participants were given 100-calorie snack packs of pistachios that claimed 2 ounces of pistachios provide more protein than 2 ounces of cooked halibut, more fiber than 2 ounces of cooked broccoli and more potassium than a large banana.

Nutritionist Becci Twombley, who has been working with athletes at the University of California in Los Angeles and will be working with athletes at the University of Southern California, talked about the virtues of the pistachio that include considerable nutrients in a small package and ease in consumption while traveling.

Twombley said the nuts help with eye health, have Omega 3s for inflammation and protect the brain from concussions.

There are also claims the nuts are high in antioxidants and help in muscle recovery and skin health.

Hirigoyen referred to a Pennsylvania State University study funded by the association and published online in June showing the nut helps reduce blood pressure and biological responses to everyday stress.

And she showed a video featuring Dr. Christian Jessen, whom she described as the Doctor Oz of the United Kingdom, talking about the virtues of “the love nut” and how it “may help” with erectile dysfunction.

Among those who traveled with the previous Miss California to China to promote pistachios was Zachary Sheely, who is part of a family farming operation on the West Side of the central San Joaquin Valley.

Interviewed after the annual meeting, Sheely said availability of water this year remains a challenge to growers. “But because it’s a desert plant, we’ve been reducing consumption and still have good production and efficiency,” he said.

Jake Sheely, Zachary’s brother, said some neighboring pistachio growers, notably those with orchards near almonds, have battled the navel orangeworm with as many as three sprays this year.

Matoian said Zachary Sheely, an opera singer, caused something of a stir when he took the stage at events during the promotional tour in China.

“When he was introduced as a grower who would be singing, there was polite applause at the beginning,” Matoian said. In a cell phone video, Matoian showed that applause grew as Sheely’s voice resounded.