California pistachio grower a phoenix with a big smile

Eleven months ago in Monterey, Calif., the majority of California pistachio growers and handlers were sifting through the ashes of the California Pistachio Commission trying to salvage something from the remains of the 26-year old research and promotion marketing order.

The same group was in Santa Barbara last month to celebrate the industry's version of phoenix. The pistachio industry's mythical bird with the gold and red plumage not only emerged from the ashes, it came out with a big smile on its face like an open pistachio nut.

More than 400 were in the coastal city at Fess Parker's hotel to celebrate the first U.S. Pistachio Industry Conference. The attendance was far greater than organizers expected. WPA also sold out the exhibit hall and Corky Anderson, conference chairman and Visalia, Calif. nurseryman, proclaimed not one dime raised from pistachio growers to support WPA went toward conference expenses. It all came from conference sponsors.

It was not like WPA had no money. It raised $2.3 million in volunteer assessment from growers willing to ante up 1.75 cents per pound for their 2007 crop to support WPA. A pleased Association Chairman Michael Woolf of Huron, Calif., said this was 25 percent more than WPA's leadership expected. He estimated the funds came from about 50 percent of non-Paramount acreage.

Less than a year after the death of CPC, Woolf said he is “extremely optimistic” that the California pistachio is “well positioned to be a world supplier of safe, quality pistachio crops for years to come.” The WPA, which has existed quietly since about 1980 primarily as a government lobbying organization, picked up most of the CPC's programs over the past year after the commission was killed largely on the vote of the state's largest pistachio producer, Kern County's Paramount Farming.

Paramount controls about 30 percent of the state's pistachio production, and therefore had the clout to kill the commission which required two-thirds approval to continue. Paramount hosted its own conference in Monterey, the traditional site for the CPC annual gatherings for years, two weeks after the WPA sponsored event. Paramount took over the CPC conference date.

WPA recently hired its first executive director, Richard Matoian, who will begin work May 1. He arrives at WPA after serving on the California Fig Advisory Board, and before that the California Grape and Tree Fruit League.

WPA picked up the key programs from CPC, including the nutrition research, promotion and trade and government affairs.

Production research is under a new California Pistachio Research Program, a state marketing order that won Paramount's approval to fund field research. It is funded by a miniscule .00025 cents per pound annually.

While the volunteer funding far exceeded WPA's leadership expectations, it is still a far cry from as much as $8 million annually generated by the mandatory CPC assessment. However, what WPA lacks in funding right now, it made up for with enthusiasm in Santa Barbara.

Woolf, a member of a large family farming operation on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley, set lofty goals for the voluntary group, citing highly successful national farmer groups like the National Cotton Council (NCC), National Corn Growers, and National Wheat Growers.

The Woolf family are long-time cotton producers, and Michael cited the highly respected Kenneth Hood, former NCC chairman and Mississippi cotton producer, who said the voluntary national organization representing seven segments of the cotton industry debate, would resolve issues internally and then move forward without breaking ranks. Breaking ranks, said Hood, is like standing in a fallow field without a hoe.

While the majority of the industry was pumped up once again with WPA's successful start, Woolf said the challenges ahead are formidable.

The most obvious one is the size of future crops. With 55,000 of the 170,000 acres labeled as non-bearing, the record 2007 crop of almost 416 million pounds is not long for the No. 1 spot. It was 28 percent bigger than the next largest crop, the 346 million pounds produced in 2004.

It will also take continued political efforts to keep Iranian pistachios out of the U.S.

The domestic pistachio market has moved beyond a niche market commodity and Woolf said it is well worth defending this market against poor quality nuts being imported into the U.S. from places like Iran.

Woolf also signaled the challenge of avoiding a food safety issue. He cited the spinach/E. coli debacle of a year ago and the most recent meat recall that has already cost the beef industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We cannot afford any shipment interruption” from a food safety issue, he said.

Promotion will be the key to moving the huge crops ahead. “Promotion is like going to church on Sunday. It is sometimes hard to measure results … but we cannot afford to sit back and assume the processing industry will do the promotion. There is plenty of room for branded and generic promotion.”

New product development is also important for selling the huge crops just around the corner, especially for the 20 percent closed shell nut kernels pistachios harvested each year. “We must expand nut meat sales to help not only now, but in the future. As a grower, I want a return on my closed nuts as good as I get for open shell nuts.”

Woolf petitioned for continued and expanding financial support. “Spread the word about what WPHA has accomplished,” he said.

“We cannot do what the industry needs without organization,” he emphasized.

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