$1 million ‘chairs’ to support pistachio industry

$1 million ‘chairs’ to support pistachio industry

“Breeding new varieties this way takes a while, especially in pistachios. They don’t bloom for four or five years. With some trials we are just now at the stage where it gets interesting. The funding will be helpful for evaluating the new progeny.”

Pistachio research is getting a big boost with two accomplished scientists with the University of California (UC) becoming the first endowed chairs for UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE).

Each of the scientists – Craig Kallsen, UCCE Chair for Tree Nut Genetics; and Bruce Lampinen, UCCE integrated orchard management specialist – received $1 million endowed chairs. The endowed chairs will provide the two a dedicated source of funding for five years, when the chairs will be opened for review.

The funding begins this fall. Half the funding was provided by UC President Janet Napolitano. The other half was donated by the California Pistachio Research Board.

UC public information representative Janette Warnert says the endowments “go on forever,” providing monetary interest on each endowment that amounts to about $40,000 annually. She says funded research can be done on any nut crop, depending on industry need.

Kallsen calls his selection “an honor, recognition for work done. It’s not just the money.”

Lampinen says the money the endowments provide is “a nice base to build upon,” giving the opportunity to leverage it by seeking matching grants.

In announcing establishment of the chairs last year, UC Vice-President Glenda Humiston said, “I’m pleased that we have identified two exceptional research programs to support with the first endowed chairs in the more than 100-year history of UC Cooperative Extension.”

Kallsen says the endowment comes at a particularly opportune time for the UC pistachio breeding research program. In cooperation with UC Davis pomology researcher Dan Parfitt, Kallsen has been breeding pistachios as part of a variety selection program using conventional methods – manually crossing and then growing trees to determine if the trees have beneficial characteristics.

“Breeding new varieties this way takes a while, especially in pistachios,” Kallsen says. “They don’t bloom for four or five years. With some trials we are just now at the stage where it gets interesting. The funding will be helpful for evaluating the new progeny.”

Kallsen is looking for pistachio varieties that show novel nut, tree growth, and yield characteristics, and for varieties which produce a high yield even under low-chill conditions.

“The climate appears to be warming,” Kallsen says. “That poses a problem for pistachios, because our current cultivars have a significant chilling requirement that has not always been met when we don't have cold, foggy winters.”

Kallsen plans to establish a trial pistachio orchard at the UC Riverside Coachella Valley Agricultural Research Station, where winter weather rarely dips to sufficient chill levels, to see which varieties produce acceptable crops under the warmer conditions.

Another key objective of the UC breeding program is identifying pistachio cultivars which mature at different times. At the moment, 90 percent of California pistachios are the Kerman variety. This puts pressure on harvesting, transportation, processing, and storage resources.

“Ten years ago, UC introduced the Golden Hills variety which matures about two weeks earlier. It now represents 5 or 10 percent of the state’s crop,” Kallsen says. “We’re looking closely at another potential cultivar that matures 10 days before Golden Hills.”

Lampinen has devoted most of his career to almond and walnut research. He has worked on pistachios in collaboration with other UC specialists and advisors since 2009, focusing mainly on canopy light interception and salinity, and their impacts on pistachio yield and water use.

Lampinen says his current work on almond and walnut water use as related to canopy size will be expanded to pistachios with the funding from the endowment.

“Some preliminary data on this is currently being gathered, but there is a need to expand this work to a wider range of orchard ages and planting configurations,” says Lampinen. “It will be very useful to have the ongoing support from an endowment.”

Lampinen’s work in almonds and walnuts will also help new pistachio research approaches.

For example, Lampinen developed a no-pruning system for establishing new walnut orchards, and will study whether a similar approach in pistachios would make sense.

For decades, California farmers believed pruning young walnut trees was critical to healthy tree development.  Lampinen observed unpruned walnut orchards in France, and “they looked perfectly fine,” he says.

Lampinen’s research showed that pruning in the early years of tree development reduced water use efficiency and decreased walnut yields. By not pruning young trees, farmers could cut back significantly on labor costs and eliminate the need to dispose of the vegetation trimmed off the tree while using water more efficiently. 

The no-pruning approach is now widely accepted in almonds and walnuts. With funding from the five-year endowment, he plans to compare the impacts of the alternative pruning systems on newly-established pistachio orchards.

In addition, Lampinen plans to consult with pistachio industry leaders, growers, and farm advisors to develop an effective research program on pistachio soil and water relations.

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