California’s pistachio growers are walking with an extra bounce or two in their steps these days: Worldwide demand for their product is up, and the size of the on-year 2009 crop — 360 million pounds at last count — is smaller than predicted prior to harvest.

Meanwhile, nut quality is excellent due to low incidence of aflatoxin and insect damage. The end result is stronger prices — up 60 cents a pound at the wholesale level in the last six months or so — and bright prospects for growers.

“These days, our growers are doing well,” says Richard Matoian, executive director of the Fresno-based Western Pistachio Association. In fact, he adds, favorable market conditions should continue for at least the next two years.

This past December, California processors shipped more pistachios than in any previous month — 51.4 million pounds. That’s almost an 81 percent increase over December 2008 shipments of 28,485,000 million pounds.

Some of this growth in demand for California pistachios reflects the effects of the severe freeze in Iran in 2008 that damaged fruiting wood. Production in Iran plummeted to just 30 percent of normal and the U.S. replaced that country as the world’s top pistachio producer.

Iranian production still hasn’t recovered. Since this will be an off year for U.S. pistachios, the size of 2010 U.S. crop should also be down.

“Anecdotal information seems to indicate very tight worldwide supplies from now through this year’s harvest,” Matoian says.

He looks for a huge increase in California’s production of pistachios over the next 10 years. During the past decade the state’s 600-plus growers have been adding steadily to the total pistachio acreage.

Since 2004, they’ve planted anywhere from about 7,000 to as many as 20,000 new acres of pistachios, boosting the state’s total to 208,606 acres.

”Currently, about 40 percent of those trees are still non-bearing,” he says. “As new plantings come into bearing, we should see a dramatic growth in the state’s pistachio production over the next 10 years.”

To help stimulate future demand both here and abroad for the huge quantity of California pistachios, the Western Pistachio Association has launched what Matoian terms a “pretty aggressive” marketing and public relations campaign to promote the health benefits and culinary appeal of pistachios.

Individual processors, such as Paramount Farms, have also begun nationwide advertising campaigns to focus consumer attention on pistachios.

“Once all orchards starting producing, we want to have a home for our pistachios without having to reduce the prices we get for our product,” Matoian says.

The association’s promotional programs are funded by an assessment of 4 cents per pound paid by member growers and processors.

This past October, the association kicked off its Green Nut consumer awareness campaign in the U.S. Overseas, it is promoting U.S. pistachios, including those identified as produced and processed by Western Pistachio Association members, to the European Union — the single largest market for U.S. pistachios — as well as Japan, Canada and Israel.

Following a U.S. Food and Drug Administration announcement last spring advising consumers to temporarily stop eating all foods containing pistachios because of concerns about possible salmonella contamination, the association has stepped up efforts to improve sanitation practices of growers and processors. Shipments of pistachios dropped somewhere between 40 percent to 60 percent for two months following the warning, before recovering to normal levels, Matoian says. “While there never were any confirmed illnesses from eating pistachios, that experience shows the potential impact of a food safety scare on a commodity,” he says.

Last August the U.S. pistachio industry issued a revised Good Agricultural Practices for growers and currently is revising the Good Manufacturer Practices guidelines for processors.

“In the meantime, every pistachio processor has sanitized their plant and implemented additional sanitation practices and more product testing,” Matoian says, “No one wants a food safety incident to define their product and their company, so all are diligent about implementing practices that assure consumers receive a safe, wholesome product.”