BY JOHN COX
If pistachios were a football team — and sometimes it does seem like they compete against almonds — they would be climbing the tree-nut power rankings.
Due partly to an exceptional 2018 harvest, pistachios surged two places last year to seize the No. 3 spot in Kern’s ranking of top-grossing crops. They came in just behind almonds and table grapes, the county’s sales leader.
The recent growth is phenomenal for a nut that has been cultivated in the Central Valley since the late 1960s. Kern growers’ pistachio sales jumped 91 percent between 2017 and 2018 to reach $1.06 billion, which according to county reports is more than five times their total a decade earlier.
It’s important to note almonds still lead pistachios locally in gross receipts for reasons that include global consumer trends and investors’ preference for a quicker return on their money. But county records show that while land dedicated to almonds in Kern has grown 70 percent during about the past 10 years to reach 234,670 acres, pistachio acreage is up 172 percent at 141,000 acres.
ALMONDS OR PISTACHIOS?
Behind these numbers is an agricultural community divided over the relative benefits and drawbacks of almonds and pistachios. Few local farmers grow both tree nuts, with the big exception of the region’s largest grower, Los Angeles-based The Wonderful Co. As such, discussions on the merits of growing pistachios usually involve a comparison with almonds.
The biggest differences between growing one or the other is crop heartiness and time to recovering initial investment. Pistachios have much longer productive lives, they can go extended periods without irrigation and are able to make nuts even in areas with low-quality soil and water.
On the other hand, almonds start producing a crop in just about three years — about half the time pistachios require. Not all investors have the means to hold out that long.
“You’ve got a long time when you’re pouring money in and you don’t get much out,” said Newfield Ag Management owner Josh Newfield, who tends to pistachio groves in the McFarland area.
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
Patient growers, however, are generally rewarded with a larger return on their long-term investment, according to analysts with Rabo Agrifinance.
Roland Fumasi, senior fruit, vegetable and tree nut analyst at the company, said pistachios’ gross returns per acre have historically been higher than those of almonds. What’s more, pistachio prices have tended to be more stable.
Although pistachio prices fluctuate more frequently, he said, they do so within a smaller range than almond prices.
‘A GREATER FIT’
Longtime pistachio man Carl Fanucchi, who has in the past grown almonds as well as citrus, said local conditions seem to favor pistachios. They can endure droughts easier, they don’t seem to mind relatively salty water — no small consideration as the state cracks down on the overuse of local groundwater — and their root systems are strong enough to withstand winds that frequently topple almond trees.
“Pistachios are just a greater fit down here,” said Fanucchi, an adviser and former orchard owner who at age 78 has worked locally with pistachios for almost 50 years.
Famoso-area pistachio grower Buck Klein said he, too, used to grow almonds and understands the cash-flow pressure that persuades some investors to grow almonds. But whereas almonds usually live no longer than maybe 20, 25 years, pistachios planted in the late 1960s are still producing nuts.
“My grandkids, great-grandkids will probably be taking care of stuff that I’ve planted,” he said.
Changing weather patterns could pose a problem, however.
There have been two disastrous years for pistachio growers in recent memory, in 2003 and 2015. The last time it was because an unusually warm winter threw male and female trees out of sync, leading to the production of a very large number of worthless, “blank” nuts.
The United States’ recent trade wars haven’t helped, either, even as tariffs on U.S. exports have been somewhat easier on pistachios. While China has levied tariffs on almonds and pistachios, India has spared pistachios while charging tariffs on almonds.
Another challenge on the horizon may be Iran.
The United States is by far the world’s largest producer of almonds. But in the pistachio world, Iran has often challenged the U.S. lead in global production.
There is some concern in California, where almost all domestic pistachio production takes place, that Iran could bounce back from a bad year in 2018. If such a recovery happens, Iran could undercut the United States by selling pistachios to China and India at lower price, said Richard Matoian, executive director of American Pistachio Growers, a Fresno-based trade group.
Still, trading partners like the European Union appreciate U.S. pistachios’ reputation for higher quality and greater consistency, he said.
“For the discerning buyer, it makes a difference,” Matoian said.
Matoian said this year’s crop is looking good, though not quite as last year’s record-breaking crop, which measured more than 800 million pounds statewide.
This year’s crop will be smaller, he predicted, in part because pistachios alternate between heavy and not-so-heavy years. But things generally look up: Insect damage has been minimal and cool weather conditions have been helpful, he added.
Fanucchi said the bottom line is that pistachios simply perform well for investors, which he noted have included insurance companies and pensions that look for dependable places to put their money for the long term.
“It’s a very interesting tree,” he said. “It’s made a lot of people a lot of money.”