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California’s largest pistachio crop in the making

“This should be California’s biggest crop ever,” says Tom Coleman, a Madera, Calif., pistachio grower who also chairs the Pistachio Research Board.

“It won’t be a super on-year, but we’re estimating production at between 400 million and 450 million pounds.”

That compares to 277,990,206 pounds in 2008, 415,694,893 pounds in 2007, and 237,471,763 pounds in 2006.

The estimate reflects growing pistachio acreage, rather than any expected increase in per-acre yields, Coleman says. In fact, he cites reports of frost in mid-April reducing the set of young orchards in Kern County and a number of areas in Madera County.

Coleman Farming Co. manages 600 acres of its own pistachios and another 600 acres for a client, all in Madera County. These numbers include 300 acres that will produce their first crop next year.

To supplement the Kermans, the company has also planted 240 acres of the earlier-maturing Golden Hills cultivar, released by the University of California in 2005, to spread out the harvest.

Coleman is encouraged by the market for pistachios.

“The nuts seem to be pretty recession-proof,” he says. “After the salmonella recall in March, which stopped pistachio sales in their tracks, we’re moving back to a pretty good pace of sales. The demand for pistachios seems to be very strong. Foreign demand continues to increase, and I think we’re improving overall quality of our product with better insect control.”

Coleman doesn’t expect any unusual problems this year from navel orangeworm (NOW) due to his diligent sanitation program. Immediately after harvest he blows unharvested nuts off the berms and into the row middles and disks them under. He repeats that process after pruning.

“That pretty well destroys any chance of the insect from overwintering,” he says.

Also, he tries to harvest his pistachios as early as possible to prevent development of overwintering larvae.

Instead of applying an insecticide in late July or early August to control NOW, Coleman makes a one-pass foliar application of micronutrients combined with the insecticide, Brigade, in mid-May. This also targets stink bugs.

“On rare occasions we’ve had to follow up with a second spray of the insecticide, but usually this single application will provide adequate control throughout the season.”

All the trees are drip irrigated, with half the water supply from wells and the other from surface supplies.

Earlier this year, he bought about half his surface water, paying $300 per acre-foot. He’s saving that to supplement his well water supplies during July and August.

Last month, an uncontrolled release from Friant Dam/Millerton Lake allowed him to buy water which would not otherwise have been available to him as a Class 2 water user. He paid $135 per acre-foot for that water, about what it costs him to pump his own water.

Coleman says his water table continues to drop as growers turn to groundwater to make up for surface water shortfalls now common each year. This is forcing him to drill deeper for water. His deepest producing well is 740 and he’s currently drilling a well down to 900 feet. He’s hoping that a planned water bank, to be built by the Madera Irrigation District, will improve water supplies in his area.

“If all goes well, it should be up and running in about three to five years,” he says.

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