Beeping sounds coming from cash register scanners at grocery stores across the nation signal substantial increases in U.S. pistachio purchases by consumers, much to the delight of the U.S. pistachio industry.
Cash register data from U.S. grocery stores, including Wal-Mart, reveal a 24-percent increase in pistachio sales in 2012 over the previous year, says Richard Matoian, executive director, American Pistachio Growers  (APG), Fresno, Calif.
Matoian, speaking at the 6th annual APG Conference held in San Diego, Calif., in February, piled on a heaping helping of good news for the audience of pistachio growers, processors, marketers, and other industry members.
One-hundred percent of the U.S. pistachio crop is grown in the West, including California (98.5 percent of the crop), Arizona, and New Mexico. There are about 850 pistachio growers in the tri-state area.
California growers have about 250,000 acres of pistachios in 22 counties.
The financial impact of the U.S. pistachio industry is about $1.3 billion.
“2012 was a remarkable year,” said APG Board Chairman Jim Zion, a pistachio grower. “We produced a record pistachio crop last year, have record shipments, and some of the highest grower prices in recent years.”
Zion added, “We can truly say it is good to be a pistachio grower.”
Globally, sales of pistachios, as with its Western tree nut cousins — walnuts, almonds, and pecans — are … going nuts.
Over the last six years, Matoian said U.S. pistachio exports doubled, from more than 100 million pounds to almost 270 million pounds (through Aug. 31, 2012).
“This is a phenomenal record regardless of the commodity,” Matoian said.
Over the last eight years, U.S. pistachio sales to China pole vaulted from about 5 million pounds per year to 120 million pounds annually. Since last September, sales to Eastern Europe are up 70 percent. Exports to Asia are 43 percent higher.
“These are very positive trends which continue to show that pistachios are gaining worldwide acceptance,” Matoian said.
Pushing global sales to the higher side are major financial investments by the pistachio industry.
Five years ago, Matoian said APG spent $400,000 on the marketing and promotion of pistachios. During the current fiscal year, the association will invest more $10.5 million on domestic and international marketing and public relations; 84 percent of the APG budget.
Last year, 74 percent of the APG budget was spent on marketing and promotion.
Looking at U.S. pistachio production and acreage, the 2012 record crop totaled 555 million pounds. With the existing bearing acreage and non-bearing acres entering commercial production, Matoian believes the industry could reach the 1-billion pound production plateau between 2018 and 2020.
In essence, this means almost doubling pistachio production in the next five to seven years.
Matoian told the crowd, “One billion pounds might be a scary number, but I am confident the pistachio industry can achieve the 1 billion-pound mark by 2020.”
Over the last decade, U.S. pistachio plantings have increased dramatically due to increased consumer demand. Over the last decade, 2007 was the peak planting year with about 25,000 new acres. Plantings last year fell in the 14,000 acre range.
Matoian said, “Based on discussions I’ve had with the people at this APG meeting I believe new plantings in 2013 could reach 20,000 acres.”
The optimistic leader believes the pistachio industry could achieve 250,000 bearing acres by 2017.
In comparison, 2011 California almond acreage totaled 760,000 bearing acres and 75,000 non-bearing acres, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture . The agency pegged California walnut acreage at 245,000 bearing acres. Walnut non-bearing information was unavailable.
Always at the forefront for tree nut growers is the grower price. Matoian shared a PowerPoint slide of National Agricultural Statistics Service data which showed pistachio grower prices since 2005 have hovered around $2 per pound. This is the initial price plus any bonuses, but does not reflect marketing bonuses paid at year’s end.
Matoian says gross returns to the grower per acre of pistachios were about $7,000 per acre for last year’s crop. Gross returns in 2011 were about $8,000 per acre.
Hansen family bullish on pistachios
Enjoying lunch at the APG Conference was the Hansen family of Hansen Ranches based in Corcoran, Calif. (Kings County). Seated at the table were brothers Jim and Jess (fifth generation producers), and their sons Erik and Phillip, and Nis, respectively.
The family also farms in Mendota and Three Rocks in neighboring Fresno County. Hansen Ranches produces pistachios, almonds, Pima cotton, and feedstuffs for dairies.
Like many California pistachio growers, the Hansen’s are bullish on the outlook for the pistachio industry.
“The demand for pistachios is growing very rapidly which is keeping prices higher to where it’s a good investment,” Jim Hansen said.
Last year, the family planted about 600 acres to pistachios on land purchased years ago. The Hansen’s total pistachio acreage is about 1,500 acres.
“We had to be optimistic on pistachios to plant 600 acres last year,” said Jim Hansen, which was followed by hearty laughter from the Hansen clan. “The large planting was a big move for us; a major effort and expense.”
No pistachio plantings are planned this year.
Most of the pistachios are the Kerman variety with some recent plantings in Golden Hills.
The oldest pistachio plantings are a decade old. With just a few years of commercial production under the family’s belt, yields continue to increase.
“Our yields have been reasonably good,” Erik Hansen said. “Results have been good so far.”
In the first production year, yields were about 800 pounds per acre (sixth and seven leaf).
“Now we’re up to about 3,200 pounds,” Erik said. “Last year, we had an off year for the older trees. We’re seeing a lot of good fruit buds right now (in February).”
When asked about the number one challenge facing the Hansen farm, everyone chimed in at once — “WATER.”
“Water restrictions are a major issue for us so water is our number one concern, especially for our almonds planted in Westlands (Water District) due to cutbacks in federal water,” Jim said.
At press time, Hansen said the family will fallow about 500 acres in Westlands this year, much of the land previously planted in Pima cotton. Prices for supplemental water were in the $350 per acre foot range or higher.
The Hansen’s will also fallow land in the Corcoran area due to water issues.
Overall, the Hansen’s call their operation successful due to many reasons, including good advice from consultants. Erik says their top asset is the family.
“It helps to have people who are engaged and have ownership in the business on a day-to-day basis,” Erik said. “When you have someone who will live or die by how well the organization is run then they tend to put a little more into it.”
Jim added, “We are lucky to have a good group of people and family which have led to our family’s success in agriculture. We are very fortunate.”
More from Western Farm Press: