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Pistachio Growers Banking on World Famous Chef to Grow Their Markets
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By Edward Smith
Published 1 month ago on
April 10, 2024

Chefs such as Martin Yan are creating new recipes for pistachios. With the annual harvest exceeding a billion pounds, it's critical for growers that the nut becomes more than a snack. (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)

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When the world got its first chance to buy California’s record 2023 pistachio crop in October of that year, Charlotte Avila, senior director of sales and marketing at Touchstone Pistachios flew to Europe to be on hand for her company’s biggest market.

The Fresno-based company had salespeople on that continent, in California, and in the Oceania time zone, she said.

The record-low price set by processors alarmed food buyers and sellers alike. Pistachios were selling at $3.15 a pound, a price not seen in more than a decade.

“In every time zone, customers were shocked at the level of opening price,” Avila said. “There was not one person that we communicated with that thought ‘wow, yeah I expected it to be at this level.’ But the reality is, that wasn’t a sustainable price for the year.”

Since then, pistachio prices have rebounded. But years of low pricing are squeezing growers, even bankrupting California’s largest pistachio grower.

Snacks alone, says Avila, will not sustain an industry with billion-pound harvests. That’s why American growers hired world-famous chef Martin Yan and charged him with creating recipes that utilize pistachios.

One of the first adaptations came with adding pistachios to Yan’s famous take on kung pao chicken. He’s also adapted pistachios into German, Italian, French, and Indian dishes.

“Singing the praise of American-grown pistachios comes to me naturally. Their rich taste, texture, nutritional value, and beautiful pistachio-green color make pistachios the perfect ingredient for any global cuisine, and certainly in my Asian dishes,” says Yan.

On the bright side for growers in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere, low prices and bountiful supplies could make alternative uses for pistachios easier to explore.

“As we look at the industry, innovation and new ways of incorporating pistachios is key,” Avila said. “The industry cannot basically consume over a billion pounds every year if we do not change and we do not grow.”

Editor’s Note: GV Wire Publisher Darius Assemi is a partner in Touchstone Pistachios.

2023 Crop 27% Larger Than Previous Record

Opening week gives the food world a taste of what the valuable nut market has to bear in the upcoming year. It isn’t until after the nut begins to develop that buyers and sellers have a sense of how big the harvest will be.

Growing the nut takes a lot of energy and trees need time to recover, so pistachio trees produce on alternate-bearing years. Coming off of a weak 2022 harvest year, the industry knew the 2023 year would be enormous. And so they knew prices would open low.

In 2017, pistachios sold for $4 a pound on opening day. In 2023, they were selling for $3.15 a pound — a 21% difference.

The 1.5 billion-pound 2023 harvest came in 68% larger than the year before and 27% larger than the previous record set in 2021, Avila said.

Volatile pricing is a major hurdle to pistachios breaking through in cooking and baking as almonds and walnuts have, Avila said.

“That inconsistency is not going to help the segment grow,” Avila said. “We need consistency in pricing, we need consistency in supply.”

Chef Martin Yan’s pistachio-crusted shrimp balls. (Yancancook.com)

Yan Is Developing New Culinary Uses for Pistachios

Record amounts of pistachios mean greater availability for alternate uses, said Judy Hirigoyen, owner of Judy Hirigoyen Consultancy, a global marketing firm out of Sacramento. Hirigoyen has 13 years in the pistachio business.

Manufacturers prefer pistachio kernels, as de-shelling the pistachio takes additional work.

“Pistachios have sold so briskly in shell and that would be the preferred way to sell them if you are a producer or a processor,” Hirigoyen said. “But they sold so briskly that they didn’t have enough really to meet the demand for kernels.”

Hirigoyen also represents the Master Chefs of France Association. Many chefs use pistachios not only for their buttery flavor, but also for their vibrant green color.

Worldwide, pistachio ice cream is the most popular flavor, Hirigoyen said.

Avila said Italian chefs have come up with new uses for pistachios including gelatos and sauces.

In the United States, flavors are huge. Coming up with the new lemon chili or sea salt flavoring is key. Distillers use pistachios now for whiskeys.

In 2023, the American Pistachio Growers teamed up with Yan to develop new culinary uses for pistachios. Yan said the American pistachio is a “natural” partner with Asian cuisine.

Pistachios have many health benefits.

A good source of fiber, protein, and antioxidants, may also help lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight, according to the website Healthline.

What’s Next for Pistachios?

Another 20,000 acres of California pistachio land will come online in 2024, bringing the total to more than 480,000 acres, according to a report from Touchstone Pistachios.

By 2031, American Pistachio Growers expect acreage to continue to grow, with the harvest topping 2 billion pounds by 2031.

The big question Avila has for 2024 is how many nuts that acreage will produce.

The on- and off-years varies orchard by orchard, Avila said. But, as more acreage is devoted to pistachios, the wide swings in crop production will lessen.

Still, there are other complicating factors. Pistachios like cooler winters so they can “chill” and rejuvenate. The 2023-24 winter was milder temperature-wise with rain coming later in the season. That leads Avila to believe that the production levels will drop compared to last year.

But even with an average per-acre yield of 2,400 pounds — much lower than the 3,200 pounds per acre in 2023 — the crop will still surpass 1 billion pounds, Avila said.

That bearish outlook for the upcoming crop has brought growers some relief because pistachios are attracting higher prices.

“It’s speculation. No one knows exactly what the 2024 crop will be and no one will know until you get out there and start shaking your orchard at the end of August,” Avila said. “But the indicators of how the winter has been is that it hasn’t been great, and therefore the market has firmed up in preparation for a lower 2024 crop.”

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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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