Rising to some tough challenges, California pistachio growers wrap up a successful season

Rising to some tough challenges, California pistachio growers wrap up a successful season

“Considering the challenges posed by the continuing drought and the erratic bloom throughout the state’s pistachio-growing areas along with the excellent quality and record-high prices for the 2014 crop, I’d call this season a success for the industry,” Anzaldo says.

With an estimated 85 percent to 90 percent of this year’s harvest completed by the third week of September, California’s 2014 pistachio production is expected to total close to last year’s 475-million-pound (in-shell) crop. That’s a far cry from the 650 million to 750 million pounds the industry was expecting in a typical “on” year combined with new plantings of improved varieties over the past few years that have come on line. But that was before three straight years of drought had set in.

Those earlier projections also didn’t include this year’s very erratic pistachio bloom in the citrus belt of eastern Kern and Tulare counties. There, in the area above the San Joaquin Valley’s customary fog line, growers found as many as 60 percent to 80 percent of the nuts their trees produced were blank. That compares to the 20-percent to 30-percent rate of blanking being reported for the state as a whole this year. As a result, growers here saw yields dwindle from a potential 3,000 pounds to 4,000 pounds per acre to as little as 800 pounds to 1,000 pounds per acre.

But, except for this localized catastrophe, this season, overall, wasn’t the disaster it could have been, points out Andy Anzaldo, general manager of grower relations for Paramount Farms.

“Considering the challenges posed by the continuing drought and the erratic bloom throughout the state’s pistachio-growing areas along with the excellent quality and record-high prices for the 2014 crop, I’d call this season a success for the industry,” Anzaldo says.

By the last part of September, more growers than ever had started their second shake to glean nuts that had not ripened when the trees were shook the first time, he reports. A decade or so ago, probably less than 10 percent of growers reshook their trees. Since then, that figure has steadily increased. This year, because of the erratic bloom and high pistachio prices, he expects at least two-thirds of the growers will do two shakes.

One method, which Paramount Farms favors, is to start with a bump shake to remove the best quality nuts first and minimize exposure to navel orangeworm damage. Then, shake again, two to three weeks later. This removes about 95 percent to 98 percent of the nuts and, because it offers the best combination of yields and quality, is the preferred approach, Anzaldo says.

The other is to shake loose as many nuts as possible the first time, typically as much as 90 percent of them. A second shake, several weeks later, is designed to remove the remaining 10 percent or so.

“This year’s first shake was disappointing for most growers,” Anzaldo says. “However, the second shake is showing signs of making up for some of lower-than-expected yields the first time.”

The opening price Paramount Farms offered for 2014 pistachios was 30 cents above last year’s initial price of $2.20 cents per pound in-shell. This reflected several bullish factors, he notes:

  • Pre-harvest prospects that drought and pollination problems might limit the size of this year’s crop to no more than 450 million pounds.
  • Continued strong world demand for pistachio, especially in China and the United States, despite retail prices at an all-time high. He credits Paramount Farms’ Get Crackin’ campaign for continued increase in sales.
  • Uncertainties about the world’s supply of pistachios. Hopes earlier this season by Iranian growers for an on-year crop have given way to expectations of no more than an average, at best, crop size.

The final prices growers will receive for their 2014 pistachios will be determined a year from now and will exceed $3.00 per pound, Anzaldo adds.

Meanwhile, the quality of this year’s California pistachio crop is coming in on the high side. Dry weather this season has reduced incidence of alternaria and botryosphaeria – the two primary disease threats to pistachios – to the lowest levels in the last 15 to 20 years, Anzaldo notes.

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“That’s resulted in low staining and an overall good, creamy color of the nut shells,” he says.

What’s more, damage to the nuts from navel orangeworm is the lowest since 2010. That’s in contrast to fears early in the season that the higher-than-usual population of NOW, which survived the winter due to warm weather, would lead to unprecedented pressure on the crop this year.

Anzaldo attributes part of reduced threat to plain good luck. “There’s still a lot to be learned about the navel orangeworm,” he says. “That’s going to require continued research.”

However, growers, themselves, played an active and critical role in limiting this year’s NOW threat.

More growers did a better effective job of cleaning up mummies from their orchards this past winter than ever, Anzaldo notes. Also, they’re spraying programs to control NOW were more effective.

In the past, the common practice has been to treat an orchard with a pesticide targeted at the third or fourth-generation of the pest, usually in July or August. That meant observing the pre-harvest interval between spraying the pesticide and the start of harvest. Designed to protect worker and food safety, typically, that’s a 21-day period.

This year, however, an increasing number of growers adopted a different approach developed by USDA research entomologist Joel Siegel, at the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center, Parlier, Calif. They made their pre-harvest sprays in July and August when the accumulated degree-days for the season reached the 1,700-, 2,200- and 2,700-degree-day marks.

That’s not all. Anzaldo estimates that new pheromone puffer technology was used on at least 40,000 acres of pistachio trees to further reduce NOW number. This technique disperses a synthetic hormone throughout the orchard to disrupt mating of the insects.

This technology was used by some growers throughout the pistachio growing areas, but a voluntary area wide control program was targeted in Kern County’s West Side, where the risk of NOW damage is unusually high. “Early results indicate that this technology reduced populations, decreasing damage up to 50 percent,” Anzaldo says. “Area-wide programs will benefit the most from puffers.”

Pistachio growers throughout the San Joaquin Valley dealt with this year’s reduction or curtailment of surface water deliveries as best they could, he notes. “They were very entrepreneurial about it,” Anzaldo says. “They used ground water when they had it and, if needed, paid record prices to buy additional water. In the relatively few cases where growers lacked the resources to get the water they needed or they received it too late, yields dropped or the percentage of closed shells increased.”

Even with enough water to grow a crop this year, many orchards were showing the impact of the continuing drought. As he points out, most pistachio growers irrigate their trees with micro systems. This technology provides water to that part of the root system within the tree’s drip line.

However, Anzaldo notes, without rainfall that means the rest of the root system receives little water.

The resulting water stress limits full leaf extension, reduces growth of terminal buds that give rise to next year’s crop, and leads to early defoliation, he explains. In addition, increased use of ground water, which usually has higher salinity levels than surface water, causes burning and scorching of the leaves.

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