Hopes Widespread for ‘Normal’ California Pistachio Crop

For the California pistachio industry, 2015 will long remembered as the year Mother Nature delivered an estimated 42 percent smaller yields, largely due to lower winter chilling hours which resulted in an uneven bloom and prolonged drought.

Yet despite last year’s crop disaster, several California pistachio growers and leaders are bullish that 2016 could deliver a much needed normal crop.

About 800 members of the western pistachio industry gathered for the 2016 American Pistachio Industry Annual Conference at Palm Desert, Calif., including grower Amir Yazdi of Madera Enterprises LLC at Chowchilla.

His 1,000 acres of young commercial pistachio trees lacked the needed chilling hours moving into the 2015 crop year.

Yazdi’s trees reached commercialization in 2014 with about 1,000 pounds per acre yields on average. His 2015 yields fell about 80 percent to about 200 pounds per acre. About 60 percent were blanks.

“It was unbelievable,” Yazdi said.

Having adequate water was not as much of an issue for Yazdi. He draws mostly groundwater for irrigation, and last year purchased surface water at $1,550 per acre foot to ensure sufficient water for the trees.

Grower Larry Lowden
While last year was disastrous for many California pistachio growers, this was not the case for grower Larry Lowden of Alkali Hollow Farms at Madera. The Lowden family farms about 2,000 acres of pistachios, along with almonds, wine grapes, and pecans.

Lowden avoided dismal yields in 2015 as yields tipped the scale at about 3,400 pounds per acre on average.

“We had young trees coming on which allowed us to have good production for the 2015 crop year where others had no production,” Lowden said. “In Madera County, we got the chilling hours needed which allowed us to get a crop when others didn’t.”

Generally, the Madera area and to the north tends to have a more normal cropping pattern than pistachio-growing areas south of Madera.

Upbeat for 2016
Lowden is upbeat about the prospects for his 2016 crop.

“The buds are on the trees – it looks good – I think we should be in good shape,” he shared.

Lowden’s optimism is largely based on abundant chilling hours in the 800 hour range this last winter. He says about 600 hours are needed to produce a good crop.

“I love the pistachio industry. It’s been good to me,” Lowden said.

He planted his first pistachio trees in 1998 and has continued planting trees since. This has helped minimize the on-and-off-year production cycle common in pistachio trees.

Rosy 2016 outlook
During his “State of the Industry and APG” report and comments afterwards, APG Executive Director Richard Matoian discussed the 2015 lackluster crop and painted a rosier outlook for the pistachio industry this year.

APG is a trade organization which works to advance the American pistachio industry through research, promotion, advocacy, and programs which directly benefit members.

He estimated 2015 California average pistachio yields at 1,160 pounds per acre, the smallest crop since 2008.

“Last year, the California crop totaled about 275 million pounds which was off from crop yields in recent years in the 400 to 500 million pound range,” Matoian said.

He said lower chilling hours were about 70 percent at fault for the smaller crop, with insufficient water at about 30 percent to blame. Matoian points to more chilling hours and El Nino rains this last winter for his optimism for a normal crop in 2016.

About 98 percent of the U.S. commercial pistachio crop is grown in California with the balance grown in Arizona and New Mexico. Combined, the tri-state area has about 300,000 acres of bearing and nonbearing trees combined.

Of the total, bearing pistachio acreage totals about 230,000 acres with the 70,000 acre balance nonbearing. Looking at other tree nut crops, Matoian pegs bearing walnut acreage in California at about 300,000 acres. Almonds are about triple the number – about 900,000 bearing acres.

He says per capita consumption of the ‘Big Three’ tree nuts is about 1.75 pounds annually per person for almonds, followed by about one-half pound per person annually for walnuts. Current consumer pistachio consumption is one-quarter pound per person, yet the amount is growing.

Matoian said, “I continue to see more and more consumers worldwide becoming more familiar with pistachios, especially given the health and nutrition benefits of the pistachio. I think pistachios will gain more consumer interest in the future.”

Exports key to success
The pistachio industry’s largest market opportunities will be in export markets,” the APG leader says. This is where increased demand is needed to help maintain good grower prices. The five year average price to pistachio growers is $2.94 per pound, according to Matoian.

On average, APG spends 75-80 percent of its budget on domestic and international marketing. The trade association started its 2015-2016 fiscal year with a $12 million budget, including about $9.25 million earmarked for domestic and international marketing.

Yet when the 2015 short crop unfolded, the APG board trimmed the association’s budget about 30 percent, down to $9.5 million. The board tapped its rainy day fund to help fund APG programs. Overall, marketing dollars were reduced to about $6.3 million.

Bullish for 2016

Looking beyond 2015 and to the future, Matoian is bullish on the pistachio industry.

“We believe we have enough chilling hours to produce a normal size crop,” the APG leader said. “Even though the water situation is better than last year, it’s still not optimal.”

Growers have shared with Matoian that the statewide yields this year could increase to the 440 million to 650 million pound range, depending on Mother Nature. This range is sharply higher than the lackluster 275 million pounds produced last year.

One billion pounds
Matoian is optimistic that the industry will reach one billion pounds of production, sooner rather than later, given the high number of nonbearing trees which will enter commercial production.

“I am bullish and confident that we’ll hit a one billion pound crop in the next decade and we’ll be ready to market it. There is a high likelihood that the billion-pound crop could happen in the next five years, assuming that everything goes right.”

Let’s just hope that Mother Nature does her part.

Source: Cary Blake, Western Farm Press

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