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For '06 harvest: Pistachio crop yield looks low

It was moving day for pistachio grower Kevin Herman who was focused on shuffling office supplies to his company's new office abode just blocks away in Madera, Calif.

The Specialty Crop Company owned by Herman provides development, marketing and services for clients. He manages 8,000 acres, including 2,000 acres of pistachios and 4,000 acres of figs, which makes the company the largest fig grower in the world.

He has been growing pistachios for 21 years in the San Joaquin Valley and is serving his second term as chairman of the California Pistachio Commission (CPC). As such, he has a good handle on the crop.

“The 2006 pistachio crop yield is down quite a bit compared to 2005,” said Herman. He pegged this year's crop now being harvested at 175 million pounds to 200 million pounds compared to 280 million pounds in 2005. The southern and western parts of the state had unusual back-to-back “on” years for the alternate bearing pistachios in 2004 and 2005 so they are off in 2006, explained Herman.

In 2005, many ranches produced more than 5,000 pounds per acre. In 2006, 500-pounds-per-acre will be a good yield in those areas.

On the other hand, Madera and Merced counties are experiencing an on year. Major California pistachio-growing counties include Kern, Tulare and Madera. The pistachio harvest began around Sept. 5 in Southern California and is marching northward for an estimated mid-October completion.

Crop quality is a mixed bag. One concern is increased blanking, or shells without nuts, caused by low chilling hours. The northern part of the state had more chilling hours this past winter and the problem there is not as bad as in the southern part of the state.

Except for blanking, Herman said crop quality is looking quite good. Mold or fungal issues have not been an issue this crop year. Springtime damage caused by stinkbugs caused some nuts to fall from the trees.

Another challenge was an extended bloom period and longer crop maturation caused by temperatures. The million-dollar question for growers is determining when the maximum number of nuts will ripen versus waiting so long when nuts deteriorate in quality.

“This year's price per pound is the second highest ever. Pistachio sales continue to do quite well despite higher prices paid to growers. That is a pretty exciting combination for all growers, myself included,” Herman said.

Record grower prices of about $2.50 per pound were received in 2005. Current crop year pistachio pricing was influenced when the largest processor, Paramount Farms Inc. of Lost Hills, Calif., announced a price of $2.15 for split in-shell nuts.

Herman said other processors generally offer minimum price guarantees a bit lower than Paramount. He said Paramount grows and purchases over 50 percent of the crop.

The CPC was established in 1981 to provide support to its grower-members through marketing, public relations, government relations and funding for production research. Programs are funded by an assessment of the state's 600 growers currently at a little or than 3 cents per pound.

One of the most critical programs to the long-term viability of the industry is the commission's ongoing production research program, Herman said. Research has focused on disease and insect control, increasing production yield, cultivar improvement, along with statistical gathering, nutritional studies, and domestic and export generic promotion.

“Production research is crucial. We try to improve yields and quality through better irrigation, better nutrition and better pruning techniques,” he said.

The commission also works to ensure that imported pistachios that enter the United States are on a level, competitive playing field. The U.S pistachio industry produces almost 100 percent of the nation's demand for pistachios. A small amount finds its way annually to the U.S. primarily from Turkey.

Iran is the largest grower of pistachios in the world, but is not allowed to import to the United States. Iranian pistachios tend to have an aflatoxin mold that can be a carcinogen to humans, he said, while California-grown pistachios do not. “The commission is a strong advocate of making sure that all pistachios sold in the U.S. are free of aflatoxin.”

On the research front, the CPC has ongoing trials to improve quality and nut yield, including a number of farmer cooperators working with researchers from the University of California. USDA Agricultural Research Service also conducts pistachio research.

Studies are aimed at minimizing alternate bearing and increasing split nut percentages. “No one wants to chomp down on a pistachio that doesn't have a split,” said Herman. “They'll end up going to the dentist.”

While pistachios split naturally, 10-20 percent fail to split. The nuts are shelled and sold as meats for confectionary use, which also means fewer dollars to growers.

The commission is also involved in the determination and promotion of the health attributes of pistachios. “We are quite excited by the initial findings that pistachios increase the body's good cholesterol or HDL, and reduce bad cholesterol or LDL,” he said. The final report is expected for release soon.

So what does the future hold for California's pistachio industry? “I view it as positive,” Herman projected, with lots of new acres being planted. “With the growing popularity of pistachios and the fact that it takes six years for a new tree to yield nuts, we have a unique opportunity to plan in advance how to market and process all of the news nuts coming on line.

“We have reasonable profits and a healthy product that consumers are discovering. They'll look at pistachios like they do in having a glass of red wine with dinner every evening. If we can create that mindset, the sky's the limit for the industry. We could grow to be as big as the almond industry,” he beamed.

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