Many Central Valley farmers are planting pistachio trees because they can better tolerate brutally dry and hot conditions than almond trees. This year’s harvest is expected to exceed 1 billion pounds. (Shutterstock photo)

Nut of the Future?

With droughts inevitable, more farmers are switching from almonds to pistachios, but not everyone is happy about it

Back Longreads May 20, 2020 By Alastair Bland

This story is part of our May 2020 print issue. To subscribe, click here.

Rain scarcely fell in the San Joaquin Valley in 2013, the second year of California’s five-year drought and one of the driest years in the state’s recorded history. For Sarah Woolf and her family, growers of tomatoes, vegetables, grapes and almonds, these unprecedented conditions, coupled with new restrictions on groundwater pumping, prompted a shift of gears: They would plant drought-hardy pistachios. 

Woolf and her family uprooted about 100 acres of aging almond trees on their Madera County property and replanted with pistachios. Six years later, the trees are starting to produce nuts. Though slower to reach producing age than almond trees, pistachios are just as valuable per pound.

But they are also known for a particular superpower among fruit trees: They can tolerate brutally hot and dry conditions. Whereas almond trees and grapevines will die if deprived of irrigation for a year or less in a dry place like the San Joaquin Valley, pistachios can survive for years with almost no water. That means, in crisis-level droughts, the trees might persist where virtually all other crops die. Pistachios are also tolerant of salty soils, a problem that affects farmers in parts of the Central Valley.

The trees’ drought hardiness inspired the Woolfs to shift from almonds to pistachios as a safer bet for a future of rising temperatures and, probably, more frequent, more severe droughts. 

“Our almond trees were almost at the end of their lives, and we had to pull them out anyway,” Woolf says. “So, given the current state of things, we decided it seemed like a better idea to replant with pistachios.” 

The Woolfs are among many growers now investing in pistachios. Around the Central Valley, as far north as Colusa but mostly south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, pistachio production is rapidly accelerating. In 2000, California farmers tended to fewer than 75,000 acres of bearing pistachio trees, according to a 2018 industry report.

By 2017, the report says bearing acreage was more than 250,000, with tens of thousands of acres still too young to produce a crop and more trees being planted rapidly. The rate of new plantings, driven partly by TV advertising, has also increased; farmers planted 4,000 new acres in 2000 and 30,000 in 2018, according to Richard Matoian, executive director of American Pistachio Growers. 

To meet irrigation demands for the new orchards, pumps and canals transfer water from the Delta into the driest parts of the San Joaquin Valley — notably its western side, amid communities like Mendota, Kettleman City and Kerman, the latter named for a popular pistachio variety. Here, lush orchards have thrived while the estuary’s fish populations have plunged — trends that conservationists and fishermen blame on agricultural water exports but which many farmers claim they have nothing to do with. Agricultural demand has also affected community drinking-water supplies. During the last drought, thousands of residential wells ran dry.  

But these controversies have not hindered the growth of the state’s lucrative nut industries. Almonds are by far the most widely planted crop in the state. Acreage is approaching 1.4 million — more than 2,000 square miles — and the annual crop value is pushing $6 billion. 

Pistachios seem to be riding the same wave, just a decade or two behind. As with any growing agricultural industry, record crops are recorded every few years. The latest was in 2018, when California farmers harvested 986 million pounds of pistachios, a crop valued at $1.5 billion. Spread across 1,300 growers, that’s an average of $1.1 million in cash sales per farm (though some growers, like Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who own California-based The Wonderful Company, farm disproportionately more land than others). Harvest is expected to exceed 1 billion pounds this year, and forecasts show the state’s pistachio groves producing more than 1.4 billion pounds by 2026. 

At the American Pistachio Growers, an industry group in Fresno, Matoian says global demand for both almonds and pistachios is strong, but pistachios may be more appealing for farmers with unstable water supplies. 

“Pistachios require a little less water for irrigation than almonds, but the big factor is that when the water runs out, and you can’t give them any, pistachios have higher survival rates,” Matoian says. “A lot of growers are considering this.” 

Groundwater Pumping Changes Fuel Growth

Playing into the shift toward pistachios is the state’s restrictions on pumping groundwater that will soon take effect. Three bills passed in 2014 and collectively called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will require local-level agencies to monitor well use and halt the overdrawing of aquifers, which has been so severe in parts of the San Joaquin Valley that the surface of the Earth is collapsing. Though sorely needed to stabilize crashing water tables, the law has farmers concerned about impacts to their industry, which relies mostly on groundwater in some regions. Water policy analysts have estimated that SGMA will force farmers to pull as much as 1 million acres of irrigated land from production.

“Pistachios require a little less water for irrigation than almonds, but the big factor is that when the water runs out, and you can’t give them any, pistachios have higher survival rates. A lot of growers are considering this.” 

RICHARD MATOIAN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AMERICAN PISTACHIO GROWERS

“SGMA was the biggest factor for us when we started planting pistachios,” says Woolf, whose family depends entirely on groundwater withdrawals for irrigating some of their land.  

Tom Coleman, owner of the Coleman Farming Co. in Fresno, has planted about 8,000 acres of pistachios in the past decade and is planting several thousand more. Like the Woolfs, Coleman has uprooted thousands of almond trees to make way for what he sees as a wiser investment. “I think pistachios are more valuable,” says Coleman, who owns 1,500 acres and manages about 10,000 more. 

The monetary value of each crop is about the same, Coleman says, but the maintenance and operations cost for pistachios is lower than almonds. In a productive year, a single acre of pistachios can yield more than $8,000 in farm revenue, according to annual crop reports.

The pistachio is native to Central Asia and the Middle East, from Syria to Afghanistan. Commercial production has flourished, especially in Iran, which was, until recently, the world’s leading pistachio producer. 

Pistachio trees arrived in the United States in 1854 and were mainly a garden novelty for a century. Then, in the 1970s, farmers began planting the trees in large groves. In the 1980s, as California’s pistachio growers emerged as a potential competitor with Iran’s, a UC Davis extension specialist conducted the field trial that earned pistachios their reputation as nearly drought-proof: The researcher, David Goldhamer, turned off the water for three years on a small grove of pistachio trees near the desolate town of Kettleman City in southern San Joaquin Valley. In that time, the trees took up only water that fell from the sky — an average of 3 inches per year during the study period, which chanced to be a dry spell. Not only did the neglected trees survive the abuse, they recovered fully in two years.   

“By contrast, we’ve killed almonds even just cutting off the water for a few months after harvest,” says Goldhamer, who works, as he did in the 1980s, with the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, south of Fresno. Goldhamer says pistachios’ “capacity to survive extreme drought stress is unparalleled.”  

Still, to produce full yields, pistachios need plenty of water — something many Iranian farmers are running out of. Groundwater reserves have been so severely depleted in parts of Iran that pistachio production has waned. “Some people believe Iran will get to the point where they have no more exportable crop,” Coleman says.  

Iran’s fall as the world’s pistachio leader has given California’s producers an edge in the global market, and about five years ago, the Golden State became the world’s top producer. As pistachios rapidly expand their collective rootzone, growers and their lobbying organization push for more of the global market share. As with almonds, about 70 percent of the crop is exported, and the American Pistachio Growers is running campaigns overseas to push their product deeper into foreign markets. The Resnicks have paid stars like Dennis Rodman, Snoop Dogg, Stephen Colbert and PSY (remember “Gangnam Style”?) to promote the nuts in TV ads. Health claims drive some of the campaigning, with ad content highlighting nutritional virtues like B vitamins, potassium and protein.   

Promotional literature focuses on the importance of the industry’s growth and expansion. “Our future depends on it,” wrote Brian Watte and Judy Hirigoyen, global marketing specialists with the American Pistachio Growers, in a recent report on the pistachio export market. 

This surge in production has the environmentally conscious on guard. In the past 20 years, as nut acreage has increased, demand for water has stiffened. Cotton, which requires significantly less water than nuts, was once widely grown in the San Joaquin Valley. “There wasn’t a tree in sight,” Goldhamer says, recalling the early 1980s.

Cotton and other annual plantings can be fallowed at relatively small cost to the farmer when water supplies run dry, making them a potentially low-impact crop. Trees, though — even pistachios — need water much of the time, and the shift to tree crops has put great pressure on the Delta. At times, the major pumping stations run with such force that the San Joaquin River runs backward, confusing migrating fish. Salmon populations have crashed since the 1980s. So have the numbers of other fish, like the Delta smelt and the striped bass.   

John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association, feels agricultural production has surpassed the bounds of sustainability in desert-dry parts of the state. “Orchard crops in the western San Joaquin Valley, an area with inadequate local water supplies, are unsustainable without poaching someone else’s water,” says McManus, whose organization advocates for protecting rivers and salmon habitat. “Grow food where there’s a local water source.”

Political Power

The Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the U.S. (1,000 square miles in western Fresno and Kings counties), is ground zero for the state’s nut boom. It was created in the 1950s on an agreement that the region’s farmers would have no guarantees for steady water deliveries. Facing chronic water insecurity, Westlands farmers mostly grew annual crops, like vegetables, melons, tomatoes and cotton.

However, Westlands — known for having political connections in the right capital buildings — has tightened its grip on the state’s water resources, and farmers there have planted more and more trees. The Resnicks also have used millions of dollars in political donations, their personal connections to lawmakers, and threat of legal action to secure water for irrigating their vast orchards, planted across much of the San Joaquin Valley.

Fishing industry advocates and groups like Natural Resources Defense Council, Restore the Delta and Defenders of Wildlife continually warn of impending extinction for salmon and other native fishes unless agricultural producers relinquish some of the water control. Reverting from orchards to annual row crops would help, they say. 

Woolf, the Madera County farmer, is sensitive to the matter of water supply and questions whether agriculture is using too much. “The same amount of water is now being used for more purposes around the state, and everything, quite frankly, has to take a pruning,” she says, adding that her farm has “considerably cut back on irrigated acreage.” 

Growing row crops would ease pressure on water supply, but farmers need to consider economics, and most annual plantings — vegetables, melons, tomatoes and cotton, among others — aren’t worth enough, Woolf says. “What you grow has to be able to pay for your land,” she says. 

Matoian believes pistachios’ tolerance of extreme drought justifies their presence in arid regions. “When you consider all the possible crops that are currently planted or could be planted in water-deficient areas,” he says, “pistachios make much sense since they are extremely drought tolerant, and can do fairly well with limited amounts of water.”

Though his work is cited as a reason to grow pistachios, Goldhamer questions the suitability of the crop, as well as almonds, as the agricultural focus of the San Joaquin Valley. “They’re very suitable crops if you want to make money,” he says. 

But Goldhamer objects to the common industry rhetoric that nut farmers need water to feed Californians. “You often hear that it’s a question of being in favor of fish and the environment, or of growing food,” he says. “But the reality is, these (nut crops) aren’t staple food items that we need to survive. They’re not wheat or corn, which are mostly grown in the Midwest and without irrigation.” He calls almonds and pistachios luxury crops that are grown primarily for export and consume tremendous volumes of water.  

“So we’re essentially exporting billions of gallons of water to the Far East with these crops,” Goldhamer says. “It’s a reason to question whether we should be using all this water to grow them.”

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Comments

Mike Steele (not verified)May 22, 2020 - 1:21pm

I will not be popular with the salmon fisheries folks, but the volume, quality and and variety of food crops that can be and are grown in the semi arid areas of the San Joaquin Valley far out weight in importance to the nation’s and the worlds food supply any value as claimed by the salmon fisheries folks here in California, this valley ag are is unique to the world and to unreasonably reduce its food production capability by restricting its irrigation water supplies is criminal in my mind.....

Buffi J. Amestoy (not verified)May 22, 2020 - 5:25pm

I have to say there are a lot of falsehoods in this article. First was how much we export of almonds. Almonds are also important for almond milk that some people and children need due to not being able to consume cow's milk or soy milk. 2nd... the San Joaquin Valley did produce a lot of cotton but saying there was not almond orchards or walnut orchards until the 80's is completely untrue. My father was a crop duster and flew the entire San Joaquin Valley along with many other crop dusters. There were a variety of nut orchards as well as citrus. I feel you should report on the special interest groups trying to keep the water from flowing from the delta for the own gain. In the 1980's the San Joaquin Valley fed 85% of the world's population due to our very fertile soil and the water that flowed. Now we do not even fed 85% of this state. Also you claim millions of dollars going to the farmers but yet you speak nothing about their over head to which they have already put out over 70-85% of that income into water, fertilizer, employment, equipment, equipment repair , crop loss and damages, ect.. I find this article shortsighted and extremely one sided to just the view of the writer whom obviously has a lack of scope on this subject and all that goes along with being a farmer trying to get food to the consumers table.

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