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Water problems abound for pistachio growers

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Early-season pistachios in Arizona looked promising before heavy rains caused unexpected problems in orchards.
There’s not enough water in California but too much in some Arizona orchards.

One man’s ceiling may be another man’s floor as is the apparent case this harvest with pistachio growers in California compared to their counterparts in Arizona. While California growers can’t find enough water for their thirsty trees, too much water is being blamed for unexpected problems in Arizona orchards.

For Jim Graham who farms Cochise Grove pistachios — 21,000 mature trees on 150 acres in the Arizona desert — a once-promising harvest is winding up with some totally unexpected problems.

“I don’t want to poor boy the situation, but we had some really heavy and violent rains in the form of microbursts in early August that caused some crop quality issues we didn’t expect,” said the long-time farmer.

“That mixture of moisture and warm temperatures brought on some unanticipated fungal issues.  We’ve submitted crop samples to determine the exact nature of the problem, but a fair percentage of the nuts didn’t finish the season as we expected and that’s depressing in what should have been a good year.  We’ve got the volume, but it may not turn out to be our most shining moment.”

The latest turn of events comes on the heels of a dismal year last year that resulted in an unexpectedly low crop.  “We expected it to be an ‘off’ year, but we ended up with significantly less than what we would normally anticipate in an off-year crop,” he said.  “We finished harvest later than normal and ran into a late freeze, a killing frost, and the trees didn’t get a chance to recover their energy.  Leaves were frozen and trees were defoliated, so we started 2020 with less energy and fewer fruiting trees and it really was an off year.

“By virtue of that, we expected a big volume crop this year before the current quality issues raised their ugly head and took away that expectation of a bright shining crop in 2021.”

Graham modified harvest activities including cancelling a second shake in some parts of the orchard.  “In some areas we just felt it wasn’t worth it to go back and re-shake,” he said.

A double whammy

For the seasoned farmer, this harvest turned out to be a double whammy.  “This is my 49th year of farming and I’ve had a lot of luck --- some good, some not so good --- but you have to learn how to roll with the punches and accept there are some things beyond your control.  We were cruising along with a pretty good crop until the first part of August and then, boom!

“We also grow grapes in our Golden Rule Vineyards and weather-related challenges proved unsettling there too as some varieties fared better than others.”

Like most farmers who get dealt the wrong hand, Graham is stoic.  “That’s just how it goes and other farmers have their own set of problems and issues.  It’s ironic that California nut growers are worried about tree stress from too little water, and we’ve ended up with some unexpected stress from having too much.”

As this year’s harvest comes to a close and Graham looks forward to completing his first half century in farming, he said simply: “This year wasn’t a whole lot to brag about, but that’s how it goes when you grow things for a living.”

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