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Tropical Storm Hilary Fails to Dampen California's Record Pistachio Harvest
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By Edward Smith
Published 8 months ago on
August 25, 2023

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California’s pistachio harvest is set to be the biggest ever. And a cool spring this year may have saved the nuts from this month’s Tropical Storm Hilary.

Across California, growers expect to collect 1.3 billion pounds, breaking the previous record of 1.1 billion pounds in 2021, according to Richard Matoian, president of American Pistachio Growers.

But even as global competitors collect their own bumper pistachio harvests, Matoioan said the world’s growing appetite for the nut will keep prices sustainable. And growers anticipate that amount to go only upward.

“We’re going to go from hitting 1 billion pounds of production — it took us 30 years to get 1 billion pounds — we’re going to hit 2 billion pounds of production by 2031,” Matoian said.

Cool Spring Saved Pistachio Harvest

This spring’s cool temperatures delayed most of the Valley crops. A lack of sun meant plants took longer to blossom. While growers lamented fewer growing days, it paid back in a big way.

In a normal year, Hilary’s timing could have spelled trouble for pistachios, Matoian said. Around this time, the shell starts to split, exposing the meaty inside, Matoian said.

“The hull was more intact, because the crop was delayed. By the hull being more intact, there’s less opportunity for water to get in between the outer hull and the shell,” Matoian.

That water could have reduced nut quality. Matoian still says pistachio quality will be affected, but that will largely be limited to shell staining. Pistachio lovers may notice some off-coloring on shells.

“You would basically find more nuts that have more stain on it as a result of the moisture in that,” Matoian said.

A pistachio tree in Central California

Pistachios grow in bunches. Cool weather delayed their opening this summer, which saved them from moisture caused by Hurricane Hilary. (Shutterstock)

Pistachios Skipped Their Off-Year, Went for Broke

Growers expected pistachios to take a break this year. The nut normally has an alternating harvest, switching between boom years and dormant years. In 2020 and 2021, however, the nuts had back-to-back bumper crops.

So after a quiet 2022, 2023 should have been a quiet year as well, Matoian said.

“Mother Nature plays funny little tricks on us,” Matoian said.

Foreign Markets Hunger for American Pistachios Despite Higher Prices

Pistachio growers export 70% of their crop around the world. In the past few years, pistachio harvests in Iran and Turkey — the U.S.’s major competition — have lagged. Not so, this year, Matoian said.

Following the pandemic, the dollar has strengthened while most other global currencies have lagged. For exporters, though, that means selling more expensive products to countries whose buying power has decreased.

Tariffs also didn’t help with global pricing. Despite that, Matoian said buyers associate U.S. pistachios with high quality.

This year, India is on track to consume 40 million pounds of pistachios, up from 20 million pounds last year.

Last year, Europe surpassed China as the biggest pistachio consumers. Right now, they’re neck-and-neck. Growers have shipped 177 million pounds to Europe and 176 million to China.

Can Pistachio Growers Step Up Their Marketing Game?

Even though people tell Matoian that pistachios are their favorite nuts, they don’t often associate the food with good health. Pistachios have just as much protein as almonds and also have potassium — making them an ideal recovery food for athletes.

Meanwhile, growers like pistachios because they consume less water than almonds and they tolerate poorer soils better.

Pistachio trees last longer than other nut trees as well, Matoian said. California’s oldest trees — planted in the late 1960s — are still producing. An almond tree typically lasts 25 years.

The trick is growing enough pistachios to meet the growing demand without saturating the market and driving down prices.

“Our hope is to keep promoting American-grown pistachios so that they can fully take up the crop that’s going to be produced in the next few years at an economically viable price,” Matoian said.

Predicted runoff through the end of July 2023 in the Tulare Lake basin. (DWR)

Rain and Flooding Shrink Almond Crop

Estimates for damages caused by floods earlier this year in Tulare County peg losses at $60 million. The revived Tulare Lake flooded more than 10,000 acres of farmland, sources say.

Cold, wet weather kept bees from going out and pollinating almond blooms. For that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts almond yields to be down this year.

“We’re going to have a smaller crop than we did last year,” said Danny Koolhaas, director of ag services with Wells Fargo. “This year’s subjective estimate came out at 2.6 (billion pounds). We’re going to see if that estimate holds true as harvest is underway.”

But in the long-term, that level of flooding could be beneficial, Koolhaas, said. Water pushes salts and contaminants in the soil down where tree roots can’t reach.

Reports say it could be 2025 before a crop could be planted in land beneath Tulare Lake, Koolhaas said. But depending on next year’s rain, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if it was sooner.

Flooding came at the cost of a lot of tomato and cotton land. But with depressed almond prices, Koolhaas said growers saw an opportunity to put those row crops elsewhere. So, the price of ketchup may not be too terribly affected by lost land in Tulare.

“Water will take a while to subside,” Koolhaas said. “But water is always good for land. And nobody thinks differently. So we’ll see when the lake does fully reside if there’s any residual effects, but I think it’s probably beneficial in the long run.”

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Edward Smith,
Multimedia Journalist
Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.

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