Pistachios in banner year

There may be discord among some of the players in California's pistachio industry on exactly how to proceed into the future with the demise of the California Pistachio Commission. However, a record crop is at least smoothing a few ruffled feathers. The preliminary yield estimate for the 2007 California pistachio crop is 410 million pounds, according to Larry Lowder, Madera, Calif. grower.

“The crop is in, and it was a very good year,” he says. “The quality is good. We were a little concerned about rain, but most of the crop was harvested before it hit, so I don't think it hurt the crop that much.”

According to Brian Blackwell, grower and vice chairman of the Western Pistachio Association (WPA), “The yields are just fantastic,” he says. “It wasn't uncommon to see trees on the east side of Kern County yielding 5,500-6,500 pounds. The hull split this year was better than normal. Everything just worked.”

Across the state, the tonnage at least met or exceeded expectations depending on who was doing the forecasting, according to Lowder. “Pistachios are extremely difficult to predict when it comes to yield,” he says. “I don't know of anyone who can consistently guess within 25 percent of what is ultimately harvested.”

With a banner harvest at the processors, now it is a matter of moving forward as an industry — disjointed or not. Since Paramount Farms effectively killed the California Pistachio Commission (CPC) earlier this year in a referendum, there has been a revival of sorts among the remainder of smaller pistachio growers to lend organization to those other than Paramount.

The formation of the Western Pistachio Association is an attempt to unite the remainder of the industry against political, economic and production challenges that are either already a threat or will be in the future. “There's a lot of good work that needs to be continued,” Blackwell says. “We need to show a united front on a lot of issues facing our industry. From my personal viewpoint, I'm totally against what Paramount has done. There are a lot of small 20-30-acre growers out there who need representation, and they're no longer going to get it through a commission. We're hoping to fill that void with the Western Pistachio Association.”

Even though WPA is a voluntary organization, support has been quite strong. “Our membership has grown dramatically in the past few months from growers of both bearing and non-bearing trees,” Blackwell says. “We currently have a 20-member board. Growers are voluntarily assessing themselves at a rate of 1.75 cents per pound of dry marketable in-shell product in addition to the original dues of $5 an acre. Many of the processors have started voluntary checkoff programs to make it easier for growers to participate and for the association to succeed.”

WPA is also actively involved in governmental affairs, most notably taking on the effort to improve access to key markets such as South Korea, Mexico and Israel. Additionally, the impending market threat of Iranian pistachio imports is just another example of an issue that could have major ramifications to the domestic industry, according to Blackwell.

Lurking amongst the unknown threats are the ever-present issues of emerging pests and disease. When the California Pistachio Commission was in existence, those threats were addressed by the California Pistachio Research Board (CPRB). Following the CPC's termination, WPA and other organizations worked to fill the void left by the termination of the CPC by agreeing to fund a portion of the 2007 proposed approved research projects. Moving forward, many within the industry feel that production research should be supported by a more stable source of funds.

“If we don't have some sort of ongoing, dependable funding for research for pistachios, we could find ourselves in a big mess if some new disease or pest problem pops up,” Lowder says.

That's one point the entire industry seems to be in agreement on for the time being. At an early October hearing at the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to explore the formation of a research arm for the industry, there was 100 percent support for the idea.

“We had zero opposition voiced at the hearing,” Lowder says. “Paramount was in favor of it. So was everyone else.”

Dan Hutfless is a pistachio grower near Chico. He was the former chairman of the California Pistachio Research Advisory Board which was funded by the now defunct California Pistachio Commission. He has been the major impetus behind trying to get the new advisory board formed.

“I think it's important to establish a research advisory board,” he says. “As our industry grows, new research needs will arise. The board's goal will be to fund good projects at a reasonable cost over a reasonable period of time to provide scientifically sound information that can be easily used by growers to produce high yield, quality crops. Moreover, it's important that the board be funded by assessment, because this type of required contribution makes all growers stakeholders in the process, eliminates the free rider and provides for consistency in funding. It also provides security for researchers that the money will be there to fund long-term projects.”

Unlike the voluntary participation in WPA, a new CPRB — if approved by the industry — would be funded by a mandatory grower assessment and overseen by a grower-elected board of directors. At present, the 2007 crop assessment would be one-quarter of one cent ($.0025) per pound. Subsequent assessments would be set by the CPRB but would not exceed one-half of one cent ($0.005) per pound.

Two ballots were mailed out to certified pistachio growers at the end of October. The first addressed the formation of the CPRB, while the second offered a choice of nominees for the board contingent on referendum passage. Voting is expected to be finalized by mid to late November. If the referendum is passed, CPRB should be operational this December.

“I think it has a very good chance of passing,” Lowder says. “There's a lot of support out there for it because the industry has already seen what can happen in a very short period of time if we're not prepared.”

Hutfless agrees. “For the board to be successful, all growers, large and small, will have to buy in to the process,” he says. “Production problems don't discriminate based on the size of the organization. Paramount and small growers have many of the same problems related to efficient water use, canopy management, nutritional requirements and disease control. In the absence of such a board, good production research would be inconsistent at best, and in the worst case, non-existent. To the extent that research did exist there would be duplication of projects, inefficient allocation of resources and increased costs to the grower.”

The 1997-1998 incidence of Botryosphaeria blight is a good example of the importance of coordinated, focused research.

Without an effective research arm to handle such production crisis, the entire industry is at risk, he says.

Pistachios are a relative newcomer to the California crop mix. The first commercial crop was harvested in 1976, totaling 1.5 million pounds from 4,350 acres.

Today, California has plantings in excess of 150,000 acres with production yielding more than 400 million pounds and is the second largest producer of pistachios in the world.

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