While the tree nut industry is literally going nuts about the recent USDA-NASS predictions of a new record almond harvest this year, Richard Matoian, President of American Pistachio Growers, thinks his group may also have another record crop on the way.
“At the beginning of the year, we were hoping for somewhere between a billion to 1.2 billion pounds,” he says. That was before erratic weather during bloom that ended up adversely affecting the crop as well as some orchard locations that didn’t receive adequate chill hours.
By mid-July, during nut fill time when the shell grows first before the nut shows up, growers were prowling their orchards looking for indications.
“You don’t know for sure until you get closer to harvest time and can count the density of clusters to see just how many of them filled,” he says. “And harvest isn’t until around mid-August, so we’re just waiting to see how nut fill took place.”
“When you think about nearly every other commodity in our industry, you can visibly see nuts on the tree that you know are viable. And that’s the oddity about pistachios having a fully formed potential, but there may not be viable nuts inside those shells.
“That said, despite our episodes of negative weather experience this year, we’re still looking to have a crop that we anticipate will be close to a billion pounds, which would be a record,” he says. “The curve should continue upward — we harvested 994 million pounds in 2018 (an ‘on’ year) with 750 pounds during 2019’s ‘off’ year.”
All of this produced by approximately 1,200 growers nationwide with 99% of that number in California, Arizona, and Nevada. “Currently we have just over 300,000 bearing acres in the United States and a total of over 400,000 acres, many planted that have yet to bear.”
All of which indicates continued optimism.
“We’ve said that by 2024, we should be pushing about 1.5 billion pounds. We’re affected by market availability,” he says. “During the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic in March and April, consumption in the U.S. went up while consumption went down in other countries, mainly China, India, and Europe, as those countries slowed down or shut down and cargo containers didn’t get unloaded.”
While no accurate crystal ball was available, Matoian did manage some predictions.
“It’s obviously difficult to say what effect current events will have on the pistachio industry, but I will say this … one of the things we’ve been promoting is shelf-stability for a product that does not require refrigeration,” he said. “With an anticipated record harvest this year, we can keep excess product in silos for up to two years, so if we have an excess in the 2020 crop, that’s still a good thing.
“Looking at worldwide production, our main competitor, Iran, is not producing at very high levels due to weather-related issues. And other areas aren’t producing sufficient quantities to supply world markets, so if consumers want pistachios, they really have to come to the U.S. market to find them.”
Matoian continues, “What we’re seeing here is a need to draw a distinction between consumption and demand consumption. Demand consumption appears to have decreased in certain markets, but that doesn’t mean that demand is going down, just that supplies didn’t get there. The demand is still there and once things get back to normal, pistachios are still a commodity that consumers will want to buy.”
His bottom-line pre-harvest message to California pistachio growers?
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” he said. “You grow a fantastic product and while we’re currently going through unusual times, when things get back to whatever the new normal will be, demand for our product will still be there.”
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