The Western Pistachio Association (WPA) at its first pre-harvest membership meeting approved a $2.2 million budget for 2008-2009 for research, promotions and other programs designed to position the industry ahead of large crops to come.

The WPA, a voluntary grower group established in 1981 to represent the fledgling industry in government relations and trade issues, has broadened its mission to focus on health and nutrition research and promotions, new product development and other key areas on behalf of U.S. pistachio growers with the demise of the California Pistachio Commission.

More than 100 growers, processors and invited guests attended the luncheon in Visalia, Calif. to learn more about the group’s efforts over the last year and future plans to provide cohesion to the industry following the termination of its state marketing order.

When the commission was dissolved in late 2006 following an injunction barring generic promotions, WPA members moved to save the baby from the bath water by taking over certain functions of the commission they agreed were strongly supported by the industry.

It established a per-pound assessment and crafted plans to continue key industry efforts they deemed of universal importance to growers, particularly related to health and nutrition research, promoting the health benefits of pistachios and developing new products.

As it reorganized and developed its mission, the association spent the 2007-2008 season laying the groundwork and slowly taking over key functions of the defunct commission. The newly approved budget represents a $600,000 increase from 2007-2008.

At meeting in Visalia, the board of directors voted to spend more than $1 million to continue funding nutritional research and promote positive findings from that research about the health benefits of eating pistachios to consumers and dietary professionals. Nutrition research at the University of Toronto and Penn State University has quantified heart healthy benefits of eating pistachios and also the benefits of snacking on pistachios related to diabetes and stress reduction.

“With research work that’s been done previously and is ongoing, nuts in general and pistachios specifically have a very good nutritional story to talk about, particularly related to cardiovascular disease and as a healthy, nutritious snack for those who suffer from diabetes,” said WPA Executive Director Richard Matoian.

The group will also continue to fund new product development, oversee the U.S. pistachio industry annual crop report, and sponsor the annual pistachio industry conference.

WPA Chairman Michael Woolf of Huron, Calif., suggested that strong participation by growers in the voluntary organization last year indicates the group’s priorities are on target with the overall sentiment of the industry.

Woolf said participation in the voluntary organization has been stronger than expected during its first year. Not counting Paramount Farms, the industry’s largest grower/handler responsible for up to a third of the state’s production, about 70 percent of the remaining volume is represented by WPA membership, Woolf estimated.

“We now have about one-third of the industry acreage assessed in membership and if you take out the biggest player in the industry, we like to think we’ve got more than half the growers participating,” Woolf said.

Based on that level of participation and a projected off-year crop of 260 million pounds, the board voted to retain its 1.75 cent per-pound assessment to fully fund programs for the coming year. If the estimated crop is realized this year, that would give the association total income of $3.3 million, largely from assessments and rollover from the 2007-2008 crop year.

Woolf said that retaining key programs and establishing a voice for the U.S. pistachio industry will be especially important in coming years with growing pressure from worldwide pistachio producers and the potential for huge California crops once the state’s non-bearing acreage comes into full production.

California, which represents more than 98 percent of the U.S. pistachio industry, currently has about 177,000 acres of pistachios. About a third of that acreage — an estimated 60,000 acres, is in non-bearing trees.

Economists have predicted that once planted acreage comes into full production, the California pistachio crop could exceed 1 billion pounds within the next decade.

The industry also faces stiff competition in export markets from other producers around the world. Currently the world’s largest producer, Iran grows about 600 million pounds of pistachios and is a major exporter. So far Iran has been blocked from exporting significant tonnage to the U.S. About 60 percent of California’s pistachio crop is also exported.