'The happy nut' enjoys renaissance, increasing acreage

Tim Hearden/Capital Press Pistachios are among Californiaƕs fastest-growing crops in terms of bearing acreage and production.

Strong demand in Asia for nutritious protein drives market


Capital Press

In China, the pistachio is known as "the happy nut." In America, the nut's growers have plenty of reasons to smile.

Pistachios are the rising star among nuts, having come off its second-best production year in history -- nearly 448 million pounds -- in an off year for the alternate-bearing crop. And production will only increase.

After big additions in acreage in the middle of the last decade, growers are still planting about 10,000 acres of new trees a year, said Richard Matoian, executive director of the American Pistachio Growers in Fresno, Calif. About 98 percent of the nation's pistachios are grown in California, and most of those orchards are in the Fresno area.

"Over the next several years, I think we'll see our big crops in 'on' years be record-breaking years, and even our 'off' years will continue to grow larger and larger each year," Matoian said. "That is really due to the amount of new acres that are coming into production. "

There are about 158,000 bearing acres of pistachios in the United States, all but 5,000 of which are in California. The total number of planted acres this year is about 240,000, Matoian said. A tree is considered productive six years after planting, he said.

With favorable weather and enough water, this year's crop could approach 600 million pounds, which would be a record, he said.

Pistachios have joined almonds and walnuts in a production and value boom in recent years. The three tree crops each topped $1 billion in revenue in 2010, the first time more than one nut crop has done so, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Pistachios' value jumped to $1.16 billion that year, from $570 million in 2009.

Almonds remained the king of the Golden State's nuts, generating more than $2.8 billion in revenue in 2010 compared to nearly $2.3 billion the previous year. All three nuts enjoyed a prosperous summer in 2011, with almonds the leader in exports with nearly 146.9 million pounds shipped in July and August, according to a USDA fruit and nut outlook.

"As far as exports go, the fact that you have Indonesia, China and India with a growing population that have middle classes ... is a key factor," Dave Baker, director of member relations for Blue Diamond Growers, said in December. "They are looking to buy more goods and especially items that provide protein and are good sources of nutrients. Nuts, and particularly almonds, are the most sought-after items in those areas."

It's still too early to gauge how the crops will fare in 2012, cautions Dennis Balint, CEO of the California Walnut Commission. Almond orchards were just starting to blossom when he was interviewed, with walnuts and plums still a few weeks off.

"The marketplace is still very strong. That's the good news," Balint said. "We're going to end this year with low inventories and be ready for whatever we're dealt."

While all the nuts are surging, pistachios have been in a sort of renaissance of late. The crop came into commercial production in the 1970s in the U.S. but has really taken off in recent years; the U.S. led the world in 2010 with 528 million pounds produced, followed by Iran, according to the APG.

Much of the nut's appeal has to do with nutrition, Matoian said. Pistachios fared well in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which encourages people to eat more plant-based sources of protein. A 2-ounce serving of pistachio kernels contains 12 grams of protein, 6 grams of fiber and 570 milligrams of potassium, according to an APG news release.

China has become a significant consumer of pistachios, purchasing 20 percent of the U.S. crop, Matoian said.

"In China its name is 'the happy nut,' because with the shell open it looks like a smiling nut," he said. "It got that name and the name stuck.

"The growing popularity has to start with consumers," he said. "Growers would not be planting a commodity if it were not for consumers wanting our product. There's been great consumer demand for pistachios. Consumers are realizing the healthy aspects of pistachios are being mentioned in the same sentence as their other tree nut brethren -- almonds and walnuts."


Almond Board of California: www.almondboard.com

Blue Diamond Growers: www.bluediamond.com

California Walnut Commission: www.walnuts.org

American Pistachio Growers: www.westernpistachio.org

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