Every March for at least a decade, California's pistachio industry gathered in Monterey under the banner of the California Pistachio Commission (CPC) to update everyone on production, promotion and international issues affecting the industry. There is another pistachio conference in the same city at the same time this year. The March 2008 conference is sponsored by the organization that killed the commission, Paramount Farms.
Paramount, the largest pistachio producer in the U.S., is owned by Los Angeles billionaire Stewart Resnick. Paramount, which claims to market 50 percent of the state's pistachios, but produces about 30 percent, according to industry experts, killed the commission by virtue of its voting clout.
Paramount reportedly took over the booking of the CPC meeting scheduled for this year after it wiped out CPC, and is parading itself as the annual pistachio conference. It is not.
The true industry-wide conference is scheduled for Feb. 25-27 when the Western Pistachio Association (WPA) meets in Santa Barbara. There the industry affairs important to the future of the California and U.S. pistachio industry will be discussed. Unlike a commission, WPA is a voluntary organization. It has been quietly around for several years and stepped up when Paramount killed the commission. Its leadership has committed to continuing CPC's work as best it is financially able with voluntary assessments.
As the walnut and almond industries have discovered, research and promotion is critical to the growth of an industry like pistachios. WPA has taken up that program as well. Paramount's success in destroying the commission could not come at a worse time. California pistachio production will likely double within the next six years. Without effective, generic promotional efforts, pistachio growers face a disastrous future. Since there is no prominent pistachio brand like other California specialty crops, generic promotion is even more critical to pistachios.
CPC did a good job and did not deserve the fate it was dealt by the Kern County farming conglomerate run by a man who made his millions selling flowers and decorative plates. I have been counseled by people in the industry against recommending a grower boycott of the Paramount-sponsored March gathering. Unfortunately, Paramount is the 800-pound gorilla that still wields power. Many industry leaders don't trust Paramount and don't want to get the gorilla even more defiant.
California pistachio growers recently approved a marketing order — with Paramount's obvious support — to fund research on propagation, production, harvesting, handling, and preparation for market. The marketing order is specifically prohibited from researching pistachio consumption on human nutrition and health; advertising and sales promotion and any volume control regulations. Obviously it meets one need of the industry, and the industry does not want to jeopardize it.
I am a strong supporter of commissions and marketing orders that promote commodity sales. There are too many in place now that have more than proven their value. However, they have not been without detractors, usually large cooperatives that would just as soon use the mandatory assessments that go to generic promotion commissions for private label promotions. Nevertheless, most large marketers are willing to support these commissions for the good of their industries. Paramount is obviously not one of them.
Paramount is interested only in making Paramount successful. I will not recommend a boycott of the March conference, but would suggest you make plans this spring to attend the statewide pistachio conference where the good of the whole industry is the No. 1 priority.