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Pistachio producers still optimistic as harvest wraps

Todd Fitchette WFP-todd-fitchette-pistachio-harvest1.jpg
Pistachios are harvested in the San Joaquin Valley. Producers are optimistic about this year’s crop as harvest wraps up.
This year’s crop is among the best for quality and sizing, a grower says.

The pistachio harvest is wrapping up and early optimism still abounds, according to an informal survey of growers and processors.

A record shake of one billion pounds — more or less (with general guesstimates at more) — still remained the realistic target as of late October, according to Jim Zion of Meridian Growers in Clovis.

The veteran of 25 years in the industry who markets pistachios, pecans, almonds, and walnuts throughout the U.S., says: “With the exception of a few organic growers in outlying orchards that may harvest through early November, most growers will want everything off their trees by the end of October. That’s wrap-up time for everybody except for those few stragglers.”

Then the waiting game until the official pistachio harvest numbers are publicized.  "While Nov. 30 is considered the 'final final' and a formal release of official stats, by the end of October we’re pretty much into what will be our harvest final numbers,” Zion said.

And his numbers coincide with early optimism. “While we anticipated this on-year crop would be a big one — a modestly-better-than-decent-crop -- with pistachio nuts, the shell forms first before the actual nut, so you can have a tree that looks absolutely perfect, but could be filled with blanks and you won’t know that early on.”

With shaking about to conclude, a clearer picture is emerging and Zion, who represents growers and processors in Arizona, New Mexico, and California, likes what he sees.

A TOP 10 CROP

“Pistachios are a long-term investment for our growers, but I’d have to say that in my 25 years in the business, that investment is paying off this year which I expect will turn out to be one of the Top 10 crops in terms of quality and sizing,” he said.

“We’ve had few insect problems, sizing is bigger than anticipated, and the percentage of closed shell is one of the lowest we’ve seen in a long time.  It’s a great-looking quality crop.”

And while the positives have been just that, the negatives have been manageable. California’s wildfires hurt grape growers because of smoke taint for wine grapes, but that smoke hasn’t been an issue for pistachios, he said.

“Labor in Arizona orchards experienced some downturn because unless the workforce had permanent resident status, they couldn’t get across the Mexican border with just a green card, so that limited labor availability in that state,” he said. “And, of course, water is always a big issue because you can never get enough of it and it would always be nice to get more, but combining all the negatives we had this year, production-wise, it’s really a great crop.”

Now that the psychological production goal of a billion pounds will apparently be achieved, the American Pistachio Growers group is putting an emphasis on marketing product through increased consumer demand.

Pistachios in California rank No. 6 among the state’s crops with an estimated value approaching $2 billion, according to California Department of Food and Agriculture data. The popular nut ranks as the state’s #2 export valued at over $1 billion.

“With these larger crops coming on, we’ve got to work to increase processing capacity,” Zion says. “Pistachios need to be drying within hours of shake, so you’re going to see some additional processing capacity required to take on these larger crops.”

With little in the way of carryover, next year is supposed to be an “off” year in the traditional on-off cycle. Changes in climate and the trees themselves may be modifying that however. “We’re seeing the cycle start to minimize a bit with plantings of newer varieties and we may see that up-and-down swing start to narrow a bit,” he said.

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