West Side grower gears up for fast-approaching harvest

West Side grower gears up for fast-approaching harvest

West Side pistachio grower Chris Couture expects to begin this year’s harvest early; this week in fact.

West Side pistachio grower Chris Couture expects to begin this year’s harvest early; this week in fact.

“We’ve never started this early,” says Couture. He and his brother, Steve, operate the fourth-generation family-owned partnership near Kettleman City, Calif. It includes California Pistachio Orchards  – 310 acres of organic pistachio trees, some planted more than 40 years ago –  and their CCOF-certified on-site hulling and shelling facility.

Normally, they begin shaking trees around Sept 1. Even then, they start earlier than most growers who farm conventionally. An early harvest start usually means more closed shells than they’d like. But, it gives them a jump on the third navel orangeworm generation before eggs can hatch and feed on the nuts.

“When we grew the crop conventionally, we had less than one  percent NOW damage from our first shake,” Chris says. “But, if we did a second shake 10 to 15 days later, that level of damage could increase five-fold.”

Once he hulls and dries the organic pistachios, they go into cold storage where a month of sub-freezing temperatures kills any worms.

His other major insect pest is the citrus flat mite. He treats the trees with an organic sulfur spray in early July. “It’s an easy pest to control with the sulfur material,” Chris says.

He credits the accelerated maturity of this year’s pistachio crop to warm, favorable weather in the spring. High winds that affected pistachio pollination in some areas missed his trees. “We got decent pollination, because we had good overlap between the males and females,” Chris says. “We’re very pleased with our crop this year.”

He’s expecting yields from his 160 acres of mature trees to about 3,000 pounds per acre. That would a 20-percent increase over last year’s production.

This will be the second harvest for another 160 acres of trees that are in their seventh leaf. He’s hoping to harvest about 1,500 pounds of nuts per acre from them this year, triple last year’s yield.

While happy with his yield potential, he is concerned about nut size this season.

“Last year the nuts from both the older and younger orchards were all large and gorgeous, in the range of 18 to 20 nuts per ounce,” he says. “This time they look to be 21s to 25s. I’m also seeing smaller nuts in our organic almonds this year.”

Like other growers in the Westlands Water District, the Coutures had to make tough production decisions this season to deal with deliveries of just 20 percent of their surface water allocation.  They’ve relied entirely on wells to irrigate their 160 acres of young pistachio trees this season. They transferred the surface water for that block to 150 acres of mature trees where there are no wells.

To make sure they had enough water for their pistachios and almond orchard, the Coutures fallowed 400 acres of row crop ground, normally used to grow melons and wheat.

It could get worse. Westlands has warned growers to prepare for the possibility of an initial zero allocation for next year. The last time that occurred was in 2009 when the final allocation reached only 10 percent.

“That zero is disconcerting to say the least, especially in view of the near-normal amount of precipitation in the Shasta area since last summer,” Chris says. “It’s discouraging that we weren’t able to take advantage of that water.”


This report is from Tree Nut Farm Press, a twice-monthly electronic newsletter published by Western Farm Press during the growing season. If you would like to receive Tree Nut Farm Press, see here for sign-up.


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