The success of California’s pistachio industry can likely be traced back to the serendipitous meeting of a dentist and a farmer in northern California during the last half of the 1960s.
Popular and successful as it is today the pistachio industry had a troubled start in the 1970s because of soil-born fungi that is troublesome in commercial crops and ornamental plants.
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Verticillium wilt nearly claimed the fledgling pistachio industry in the 1970s; because the industry basically had one rootstock upon which to bud a scion brought over from Iran decades earlier and adapted to California’s climate conditions, things did not look promising for the industry.
“People were losing their trees and they had no way to stop it,” said Corky Anderson, a founding partner in Pioneer Nursery.
Anderson met Ken Puryear at a dinner party in Corning, Calif. in the late 1960s. At the time Puryear was a practicing dentist in Corning and Anderson was a Tulare farmer who had relocated to Orland, Calif. to grow wheat and corn.
Within a relatively short period of time Puryear and Anderson were friends with a common interest in pistachios, a new nut tree being planted in the northern Sacramento Valley where almonds and walnuts were already established.
It wasn’t long and the two were establishing pistachio trials and learning what they could about the tree nut. They visited the Chico Research Station and met with Lloyd Joley, the director at the station, who advised them on recommended varieties and how to propagate them.
As they developed their first pistachio trials they began to learn the biology of the different pistachio rootstocks. Puryear would eventually quit his dental practice and join Anderson to form Pioneer Nursery.
Early crop failures
The pair immediately went to work on a host of challenges facing early growers. Crop failures, high mortality rates and seed germination issues were common. Quickly they would begin work on rootstock varieties to see if they could improve on existing rootstock, including Atlantica and Terebinthus.
The 1970s revealed a great need for new rootstock as Verticillium wilt was forcing growers to replace trees at a rapid pace. According to Brian Blackwell, manager and technical director with Pioneer Nursery, some growers would end up replacing over 100 percent of their orchards during the decade as trees with wilt would survive about four years then die, only to be replaced by the same susceptible variety.
Anderson said the industry could not withstand this cycle and was near collapse.
By the late 1970s Pioneer Nursery was working on root stock that showed promise in resisting Verticillium wilt and could succeed in California’s climate and soil conditions. Meanwhile, Anderson and Puryear were adding to their own pistachio plantings throughout the state. Some of those trees would wind up becoming the industry’s “gold standard” for production and resistance to Verticillium wilt.
In 1980 Pioneer Nursery patented the first of three different rootstock varieties. Pioneer Gold 1 was introduced to the industry that year and forever changed the industry.
Pioneer Gold brought together all the traits growers needed to successfully beat back wilt and produce good nut crops on healthy trees, which at the time were budded to the Kerman variety. By 1999 Pioneer Nursery was growing one million trees per year to meet an increasing demand for quality pistachio trees in the western United States.
Over the next three decades Pioneer Nursery would go on to achieve three patents for pistachio rootstocks: the original Pioneer Gold, Platinum and an unnamed clone.
A patent is pending on a fourth rootstock variety developed by Pioneer Nursery.
As Anderson and Puryear developed successful rootstocks they also were interested in potting containers that would not compromise developing root systems prior to transplant. Early potting containers developed did not allow developing root structures an opportunity to flourish.
While their work with rootstocks revolutionized an industry in steep decline, Blackwell said it was their potting containers and developing rootstocks that truly set Anderson and Puryear at the head of the class.
“While Ken and Corky truly revolutionized this industry with Pioneer Gold 1, they didn’t just sit back on their laurels after creating these new varieties,” Blackwell said. “Now they have again revolutionized the industry with a pot that is unbelievable when it comes to developing root structure.”
Research by the University of Florida confirms that the pots developed and patented by Pioneer Nursery confirm that they’re the most successful pots on the market that help promote good root development.
Because they work well, the pots are being purchased by nurseries that handle commercial agriculture and ornamental plants.
It’s the pots Anderson and Puryear like to talk about because of how they allow root architecture to develop and set the foundation for healthy trees.
“When you have this kind of root mass the plants are able to pick up nutrients and water from everywhere,” Blackwell said.
The importance of root structure is evident in a book Anderson keeps. It shows pictures of tree roots from healthy trees and those that are severely compromised. The compromised trees barely have a root structure and are susceptible to disease. Healthy root structures promoted by their patented pots are likewise evident by the photographs.
Anderson believes that trees have their best chance to succeed, even in less-than-ideal soil conditions, if given a solid base (root structure) from which to grow.
“When you go to a nursery and buy a rootstock you’re really buying the foundation of your trees and orchard forever,” said Puryear. “They adapt better to soil conditions.”
Pioneer Nursery sells their patented containers from very small to five gallons. The larger containers are used by the ornamental horticulture industry, which Anderson says has shown great success as well because of them.
Aside from owning Pioneer Nursery, which today is based in Kern County, Puryear and Anderson also own and manage over 2,000 acres of pistachio groves near the southern end of California's Central Valley. Their contribution to the industry goes beyond the fact that they patented and now supply the majority of rootstock to pistachio growers.
In 2013 Anderson and Puryear partnered with Blackwell as they seek to continue with trials, developing new rootstocks and other processes necessary to advance the pistachio industry.
Both were active in the formation of the former California Pistachio Commission. Anderson later went on to serve on the board of directors of what is now the American Pistachio Growers, a trade organization with voluntary membership that continues to expand its membership base.