Pistachios: Farmers hope for big potential with little nut
Near Fresno, the Nichols family is going nuts over pistachios.
California pistachio farmers harvested their first commercial crop in 1976. That year, only 1.5 million pounds were produced from 4,350 acres. Now, some three decades later, California has plantings in excess of 150,000 acres with production yielding more than 400 million pounds.
When the Nichols family purchased land just outside Fresno more than 40 years ago, they had no idea that they would become a major force in the state's growing pistachio sector. They also never realized that for several weeks at a time, they and their 115 workers would literally be going nuts over nuts—but in a good way, of course!
"The pistachio harvest is a lot of long days," said Chuck Nichols. "Everyone that works in the harvesting operation and the drying and hulling preparation works long hours, but it's worth it in the end."
Because pistachios split on the tree, the nuts must not fall on the ground because that would be unhygienic. So huge, tree-shaking machines have special bins or tarps attached that catch the harvested pistachios. You can literally feel the earth rumble as each tree vigorously shakes for about 20 seconds, and the nuts cascade down. Then they're hauled away to the family-owned processing plant. Once the fresh nuts arrive at the plant, workers start the process of getting them hulled and dried within three to four hours.
Compared to other nuts, pistachios are fairly new to California. Nichols remembers his dad, who grew up on a small farm in Clovis, planting their first pistachio orchard in 1983. Back then, it was a huge risk and he says many people thought they were—well, nuts!
"Pistachios are unique. There are only a few places in the world that you can grow them in and we have the perfect climate here in the Central Valley," said Chuck. "It was a bit of a gamble and nobody thought it would be as successful as it has been."
But success can be slow. Pistachio trees often don't produce nuts for about five to six years, unlike other nuts that can produce a harvest in about 24 months. Put another way: You need a lot of patience for pistachios!
Despite being a newcomer to the business, California is now the second largest producer of pistachios in the world—which is great news to growers like Chuck.
"I really enjoy what I do," he said. "It's something unique and when someone asks you what you do for a living and you tell them 'I grow pistachios,' you're their instant friend!"
For more information about California-grown pistachios, visit www.pistachios.org.