Nov./Dec. 2012 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Gwen Schoen
Photos by Matt Salvo
Nut's popularity enjoys rapid growth
More online: Pistachio pointers
Harry and Jane Dewey, who have grown pistachios in Yolo County since the mid-1960s, are among an increasing number of California farmers growing the popular nut.
Sometime in the 1940s, Harry Dewey's father heard about some fellows in the San Joaquin Valley who were having success with a new crop. He decided to plant a few trees on land the family owned in Sacramento County—and became somewhat of a pioneer in the California pistachio business.
The story of how this little nut found its way to the valleys of California and became such a major player among the state's crops reads like a novel about how the West was won. The history includes risk takers, colorful characters, entrepreneurs, wealthy investors, farm families and even indirect intervention from a U.S. president.
And what a success story it is. Richard Matoian, executive director of American Pistachio Growers, estimates that as 2012 comes to a close, California will log a record production of 550 million to 575 million pounds of nuts.
"That's the 10th-largest commodity in California," he said, adding that most of the nation's pistachios are grown in the San Joaquin Valley, primarily in Kings, Kern, Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties.
Pistachios were originally brought to the U.S. in the 1880s by traders doing business with immigrants from the Middle East. But the nut's start in California began in the late 1920s, when William Whitehouse, a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, traveled to Persia (now known as Iran) to search for plants and seeds to grow in the U.S. He returned with 20 pounds of pistachio seed, which he planted in Butte County near Chico.
Pistachios got their start in California in the late 1920s when a researcher brought seeds from Persia. Today's harvest methods are high-tech: The nuts are mechanically shaken from the tree onto a catching frame.
"Of those 20 pounds, only one (seed) flourished," Matoian said.
At about that same time, according to Robert Beede, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Kings County, Elmer Ruehle and his brother were struggling to make a living growing figs on their 10 acres in the Tulare County community of Terra Bella. The brothers decided that Elmer should move to Los Angeles to work as a cabinet maker and, they hoped, supplement their income.
Beede, who met Elmer Ruehle several years ago, loves to tell the story of how the farmer-turned-cabinet-maker discovered pistachios.
"It was Elmer's habit to make a daily stop at a local tavern," Beede said. "The tavern had a candy machine that dispensed a handful of pistachios for a nickel. He loved the red-shelled nuts—so much that one day he asked the bartender about them and was told they were an exotic nut imported from Iran. Elmer figured, why should we import something we could grow right here?"
After a bit of research, Ruehle learned about Whitehouse's experiments with pistachio trees. Soon he quit his cabinet-making job, returned to Terra Bella with 135 trees purchased from Whitehouse and began replacing the figs.
"Everyone thought Elmer was wacky," Beede said. "But as folks drove past his property and saw how his trees were thriving, they began to think he was on to something."
Some credit that tavern with the pistachio machine for the nut's rise in popularity, because soon investors in Southern California began following Ruehle's lead, planting pistachios everywhere there was space. Word of their success began to spread, and that's when Harry Dewey's father planted his first pistachio trees.
Dewey, 85, and his wife Jane, 84, have been pistachio growers in Yolo County since the mid-1960s, but the family has been farming for several generations. The family started with grain crops in 1870 and at the turn of the 20th century, due to falling prices, Dewey's grandfather planted almonds instead. Since then, the family has always grown nut trees.
When Dewey's father heard about pistachios in the 1940s, he approached farm advisors at UC Davis and learned that the trees must be started with rootstock.
"So he got some stock from a fellow in Chico (probably Whitehouse) and put in just a few trees at the end of the rows of almonds," Dewey said.
Some 20 years later, following in his father's footsteps and also nudged by a recommendation from the UC Davis farm advisor's office, Harry Dewey planted 10 acres of pistachios on property he bought in Yolo County.
The exotic nut that attracted early risk takers like Elmer Ruehle and Harry Dewey's father, Harold, indeed proved a good crop for the state's valleys. The drought-tolerant trees need relatively little water and can survive in salty soil, unlike other crops. The pistachio business was slowly taking root.
The first commercial crop in which pistachios were planted on a large scale and for widespread sale and distribution was produced in 1976 and totaled 1.5 million pounds. Still, the business was growing at a modest rate.
"Hardly anyone realized the potential," Matoian said.
Then came the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, when 52 Americans were held at the American Embassy in Tehran. President Carter placed sanctions against Iranian imports, including pistachios. By then, Americans had developed a craving for the nuts, and growers could not keep up with demand.
Growth hasn't slowed. And while California pistachios are still enjoyed straight from the shell—the natural brown shell, unlike the red-dyed Iranian imports Ruehle had discovered—recipes abound for other uses, from baked goods to vegetable dishes.
"These are exciting times for the California pistachio industry," said Andy Anzaldo, general manager of grower relations for Los Angeles-based Paramount Farms, one of the world's largest growers and processors of pistachios.
Although domestic consumption is up, much of today's new demand for California pistachios comes from overseas, particularly Asia, the European Union and the Middle East.
The growth in U.S. production "will come both from the maturation of currently planted trees that are not yet bearing nuts, as well as new plantings over the coming years, which will require about seven years of growth before they produce their first commercial crop," Anzaldo said.
Both Anzaldo and Matoian predict U.S. pistachio production will reach the 1 billion-pound milestone between 2018 and 2020.
That is good news for growers like the Deweys, who just added 10 acres of new trees. Although their son and daughter chose careers outside of agriculture, two grandsons, twins Joe and John Thomas, will likely be the next generation of Dewey farmers. During the summer, the brothers have run the family farmers market stands to earn college and spending money. Both are freshmen majoring in agriculture at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and say they plan to continue growing pistachios.
"I love it," said Joe, as he popped a handful of his grandfather's profits into his mouth. "It just seems like a great tradition that should continue."
Here's the scoop
From humble beginnings as a vending machine treat with the slogan "a dozen for a nickel," pistachios are now grown on more than 250,000 acres throughout 22 counties in California and comprise 98.5 percent of the total U.S. commercial pistachio production.
- Pistachio trees are grown from rootstock and take six or seven years to produce a first harvest and about 15 years to reach peak production. We're still learning how long the trees will live and produce nuts in California—estimates are at least 100 years and probably 200.
- Like other nut trees, pistachio trees produce a heavy crop one year and a lighter one the next.
- Harvest is generally in September. When ripe, the hulls turn pink and split. Harvest is done by shaking the nuts from the trees and catching them in frames. The nuts never touch the ground.
- Pistachios are hulled, cleaned and dried within 24 hours of harvest to prevent discoloration. Once dried, the nuts can be stored for weeks before roasting.
- Before the mid-1970s, consumers were most familiar with Iranian pistachios, which had shells dyed red to hide staining caused by harvesting techniques. Researchers at UC Davis studied the problem and figured out that if the hulls are removed within a few hours of harvest, the nuts stay clean.
- California pistachios are sometimes dyed red or green during the holiday season to give them a festive look, not to hide stained shells.