Nuts about nuts worldwide
Nov./Dec. 2008 California Country magazine
By Christine Souza
Four movers and shakers in the nut business offer their personal stories as well as their favorite family recipes.
There is something altogether yummy about the crunch of an almond, a flavor-punching pistachio, the versatility of a walnut and the sweet decadence of a macadamia nut. Not only do these nuts offer year-round, bite-sized portions of good health, they rank right up there with pumpkin pie and eggnog during the holidays.
As demand for these crops has surged over the years, local growers have responded by planting more acreage. Today, California is a leading producer of many of the world's most popular nuts.
Four movers and shakers in the state's nut business offer their personal stories as well as their favorite family recipes.
Fourth-generation farmers Gus Mariani, left, and his brother Matt are actively involved in their family's growing and packing business, which exports California walnuts to consumers as far away as Europe and Asia.
Multi-generational farm family ships around the world
At the turn of the last century, Croatian-born Jack Mariani joined his older brother in California's Santa Clara Valley to live the American dream and farm. Today, four generations later, the Marianis are still farming and operate Mariani Nut Co. in Winters, one of the largest privately held walnut and almond processors in the world.
"We all live here close together, we all work together and it has always been that way. Everyone has different roles and responsibilities. It is a team approach," said Matt Mariani, a fourth-generation grower who works in sales and marketing for the family business.
Mariani Nut Co. was founded by Matt's father, Jack, and Jack's cousin, Dennis. Looking beyond their Santa Clara farm for new opportunities, the cousins started the walnut processing company in Yolo County in 1972 and later expanded to include another relative (Jack's brother, Martin) and another crop (almonds).
Mariani Nut Co. still grows nuts in the family's own orchards, but also relies upon a large number of growers statewide to supply them with a crop to be processed. Mariani walnuts reach all regions of the United States and 45 percent of their walnuts are shipped internationally.
"Walnuts have a very strong domestic market, but also a very strong overseas market so we are fortunate that overseas customers recognize the quality of product that comes from California," Mariani said.
The farmer added that he appreciates the rural lifestyle and the lessons that it teaches. He and other family members have had opportunities to live outside the area, yet all have returned to the farm.
"When we were young, we were given the job of picking up nuts that wouldn't get harvested and we'd get a little bit of money for it," said Mariani, who expects to continue this tradition with his own children, a 2-year-old and another on the way. "There's always been a strong emphasis on work and we all worked growing up."
Christine Long and her husband, David, own a state-of-the-art facility that processes almonds for shipment all over the world. She is also serving as the first female chair of the Almond Board of California.
City gal turns country with international almond business
Only after Christine Long met the love of her life and had children did she realize she was destined for rural life. The Bay Area native was comfortably settled in Napa when she and her husband decided to buy an almond orchard in Ballico, a rural Merced County town that barely registers as a blip on the map.
"I had a huge lifestyle change. I was living in a brand-new house and in 1980 we moved to a trailer house and started farming. I told my sisters I'd moved to Pluto," Long said with a laugh. "Over the years I learned that living in the city and country both have their good points, and living in the country is a wonderful way of life."
In less than three decades Long and her husband, David, have grown their business, Hilltop Ranch Inc., into one of the state's largest independent processors of almonds, employing 225 workers. Two of the couple's three grown children are part of the family farming operation.
"I think Dave and I have done so well because we've learned to build on each other's strengths," Long said. "He is a real mechanical person. He can look at a job and figure out the most efficient way to get it done, where I'm more of a people person."
Hilltop Ranch buys almonds from throughout the San Joaquin Valley and also grows more than 100 acres of their own. The operation--which hulls, shells, cleans, grades, sorts and sizes the nuts--ships nearly 30,000 tons of almonds each year to more than 65 countries.
"I am proud that we have a quality product and that we're able to disperse it throughout the world," she said.
Due primarily to her desire to build upon the success of the state's almond industry, this summer Long was elected as the first female chair in the Almond Board of California's 58-year history. The board works to promote California almonds, expand domestic and international markets, and fund research projects.
"The Almond Board recognizes that diversity is important," she said of her appointment. "You get where you are by putting one foot in front of the other and going for it. There are no limits, no restrictions. You just work hard and that is what we do. My neighbors say, 'We remember when you were dirt farmers.'"
Tom Coleman says he feels a strong connection to his fellow pistachio farmers because together they turned the nut into a commercially successful crop in just a few decades.
California native takes a chance and succeeds with pistachios
Tom Coleman has been growing one of the world's favorite snack foods since the mid-1970s, shortly after the pistachio made its commercial debut in California. Today his orchards occupy some 500 acres in Fresno and Madera counties, an area that has become a major pistachio-growing region because of its chilly winters and hot, dry summers. Pistachios are harvested in the early fall.
"The most rewarding thing to me is seeing a full truckload of pistachios leaving my ranch because I know I'm sending a good quality product to people all over the world," said Coleman, who sells his crop to nut processors including Kern County's Paramount Farms.
Coleman earned a degree in landscape architecture and ran a successful wholesale nursery for several years in Madera. Seeking new options, he bought a "fixer upper" pistachio orchard and nursed it back to health. He did so well that he bought more land to grow more pistachio trees. Eventually he got out of the nursery business altogether.
"The key to being successful at growing pistachios is sticking with it and doing the best you can because you never know what might be the right combination," Coleman said.
The primary pistachio grown in California is the Kerman variety, which was introduced in the 1950s and has been the front-runner ever since. The variety is a good producer and fits well with California's climate.
For growers, "good scientific research is extremely important because pistachios are very new compared to other commodities," said Coleman, who chairs the California Pistachio Research Board. "We don't have that history of knowing how to farm things to the optimum situation."
Coleman said he and his fellow board members are constantly munching on their crop. His favorite way to eat pistachios is in the shell.
"Whenever we have pistachio meetings--whether it is at 8 in the morning, 8 at night or anytime in between--we're all eating pistachios," he said. "Even as growers of pistachios, we never get tired of eating them."
Jim Russell affectionately refers to his macadamia nut trees as his children because of all the care they require.
Veteran finds pleasure in niche macadamia market
A father of five and grandfather of 10, Jim Russell of San Diego County also claims a number of other children: his macadamia trees.
"Those are like my kids. I dug the holes, I put the water system in, I planted those trees," he said. "Those are my babies."
Located in Fallbrook, Russell's 4 1/2 acres of macadamia trees produce about 16,000 pounds of nuts a year. The trees--planted in the 1970s--are tucked among a hodgepodge of other specialty crops, including gourds, avocados, lemons, pummelos, persimmons and figs.
Russell and many other macadamia farmers in California grow the nuts specifically as a niche crop, selling them on a small scale and direct to consumers at farmers markets, to chefs at restaurants and through the mail.
Macadamia nut growers are concentrated mostly along coastal regions in Southern California, where the climate is frost-free. The trees require up to 10 years of growth before they begin to produce a crop.
"Most nuts come from deciduous trees so they go to sleep in the fall and wake up in the spring to set blossoms. The macadamia is an evergreen. It is growing all of the time so whenever the mood strikes, it pushes a blossom," Russell said. "Our heaviest production starts in early October and the majority of the crop is in by the end of March, but we get a small amount of nuts year-round."
Academic research is what led Russell, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, to begin growing macadamia nuts.
In 1978 while pursuing his master's degree in business administration and finance, Russell conducted an analysis of different crops farmers could grow in California. That study prompted him to plant his own macadamias the following year.
"Crops like blueberries are very perishable so you have to move them right away. With macadamias, if you take care of them you can keep those around for several years," Russell said. "I like the taste of macadamia nuts and I figured if I like them, other people will like them, too."
Christine Souza is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most California-grown nuts are harvested in the fall, just in time for holiday baking and snacking. But nuts are a year-round favorite and have become even more popular as news of their nutritional benefits spreads.
Nuts are full of protein, fiber, healthy monounsaturated fats, vitamins and antioxidants. In addition, research indicates that people who eat them regularly have lower risks of heart disease.
Here are a few facts about California's top nut crops.
- Walnut and pistachio trees are pollinated by wind, not bees. Almond trees are dependent on bees.
- California walnuts are shipped to more than 40 countries around the world. The California Walnut Commission reports that domestic customers receive about two-thirds of the shelled walnut shipments, while export markets receive about three-quarters of the in-shell shipments.
- Growers are expected to produce 375,000 tons of walnuts this year, up 15 percent from 2007.
- More than three-quarters of California's almond crop is exported. Top importing countries include China, Japan, Spain and Germany.
- The nearly 660,000 acres of almond trees grown in California will produce 1.5 billion pounds of nuts this year.
- During Roman times, almonds were considered a fertility charm and newlyweds were showered with almonds during weddings.
- California is the world's second-largest producer of pistachios. About 60 percent of the crop is exported. Top importers include China, Japan, Europe and Canada.
- California pistachio growers produced 416 million pounds of pistachios last year on about 150,000 acres.
- Pistachio orchards can bear nuts for centuries in what are known as "alternate-bearing" cycles, which means their crop yield is heavy one year and light the next.
- It takes up to 10 years for a macadamia tree to begin producing commercial quantities of nuts. However, once established, the tree may continue bearing for more than a century.
- The California Macadamia Society estimates there are about 3,000 acres of macadamias in California.
Get crackin' with these nut recipes
The holiday season is the perfect time to make your most cherished recipes--and to try some new ones! These recipes feature some of California's most popular nuts. And they're straight from the farmers themselves.
Jack Mariani's walnut pesto
Pasta with pesto.
Mmmm… pesto! While this classic, fresh-tasting sauce is used in a variety of dishes, it's a favorite with pasta. This recipe is from the Mariani family, founders of Mariani Nut Co. in Winters, a small town in Yolo County.
2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup walnuts
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
Put everything except cheese in a food processor and blend. Add extra olive oil if necessary to get the right consistency. Transfer to a bowl and stir in cheese.
Serving suggestion: Cook 1 pound of your favorite pasta and mix with sauce. Sprinkle with extra cheese when serving.
Courtesy of the Almond Board of California
Christine Long has plenty of almond recipes. After all, she's an almond farmer, the co-founder of an international almond business and chair of the Almond Board of California. Here is one of her favorite salads.
1/3 cup orange juice
2 tbsp. white wine vinegar
2 tbsp.vegetable oil
1 tbsp. honey
2 tsp. grated fresh ginger
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes
2 grapefruits, peeled and segmented
2 navel oranges, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
6 cups lightly packed spinach leaves, torn into bite-size pieces
2/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted (see note)
To make dressing, in the container of a blender, combine juice, vinegar, oil, honey, ginger, salt and pepper flakes. Blend to mix thoroughly. In a bowl, combine fruit, onion and dressing. Set aside at least 10 minutes or up to 1 hour. To serve, line four individual plates with spinach. Spoon fruit mixture with dressing over spinach, dividing equally. Sprinkle almonds over salads.
Note: To toast almonds, spread in an ungreased baking pan. Place in a 350-degree oven and bake 5 to 10 minutes or until almonds are light brown; stir once or twice to assure even browning. Note that almonds will continue to brown slightly after removing from oven.
This recipe was provided courtesy of the Almond Board of California. For more recipes, visit www.almondsarein.com.
Pistachio crusted salmon with green bean sauté
Courtesy of Paramount Farms
Tom Coleman, who grows pistachios in Fresno and Madera counties, says he never gets tired of eating the nuts. This colorful, nutritious dish is a winner at his house.
3 tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 small red onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 mild green chili, seeded and finely chopped
1 cup pistachio kernels, chopped and divided
1/2 lb. mixed fresh green and yellow wax beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 tbsp. finely chopped fresh parsley
4 (6-oz.) salmon fillets, rinsed and patted dry
In a large sauté pan, heat 2 tbsp. of the olive oil. Add garlic, onion, bell pepper, chili and 1/2 cup of the pistachios. Reduce heat to low and cook until crisp tender. Meanwhile, cook beans in boiling water for 3 to 4 minutes; drain and add to sauté mixture. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir in parsley. Brush each side of salmon fillets with olive oil. Press in remaining pistachios on each side of the fillets. In a large skillet, heat remaining olive oil. On medium heat, cook salmon 4 minutes on each side or until fillets flake easily with fork. Serve salmon on a bed of the green bean sauté with a squeeze of lemon.
This recipe was provided courtesy of Paramount Farms, the world's largest grower and processor of pistachios and almonds. Paramount Farms' pistachios can be found in the produce department of grocery stores nationwide under the Wonderful, Everybody's Nuts! and Sunkist brand names. For more recipes, visit www.sunkistpistachios.com.
San Diego County macadamia nut farmer Jim Russell says these are without a doubt one of the best cookies he has ever tasted. "To aid your understanding of the name," he continues, "you are urged to mash, knead, squeeze and generally just beat up on the dough with your hands. That will allow you to take out your aggressive feelings. Of course, if you are not feeling aggressive, or if you just want to be a party pooper, you can use a mixer, but we won't guarantee the results."
Makes about 8 dozen
3 cups butter or margarine
3 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
6 cups oatmeal (raw)
3 cups sifted flour
1 tbsp. baking soda
2 cups chopped macadamia nuts
1 1/2 cups chocolate chips (white, milk or semi-sweet)
In a large bowl, mix with your hands butter, sugar, oatmeal, flour and baking soda. Add macadamia nuts and chocolate chips (we like the white best) and mix in until well blended. Drop by spoonfuls onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees 10 to 12 minutes.