Pistachios

August 30, 2022

Pistachios are a self-contained snack that is great eaten out of their husk or incorporated into a wide variety of recipes. They have antioxidants and anti-inflammatory characteristics, and there is evidence that they lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, the fiber, minerals and healthy fats in pistachios may be protective against high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Pistachio consumption in the U.S. has tripled since 2000, with an average annual unshelled consumption of 0.6 pounds per person.

But how do pistachios grow?

Contents

pistachios in shells

Intro to Pistachios

One of the first questions people have about pistachios is, “Are pistachios a nut or a seed?” Technically, neither.

Pistachios are considered a drupe—a tree fruit that has a seed covered by a shell. They are the edible part of a pistachio fruit. They are botanically in the same family as stone fruits (e.g., peaches, cherries, and plums) and berries (e.g., raspberries and blackberries).

These tasty drupes are grown in few places with important requirements in terms of weather and water. But their market is growing and yields are increasing to match it.

Major Pistachio Growing Regions

The pistachio tree growing zone mimics the areas where pistachios are native. Where do pistachios come from? The Middle East and western Asia are their point of origin before they spread to Europe and eventually into the Americas.

Pistachio trees do well in regions that have long, dry summers and cool winters. In the U.S., this means that 100% of pistachio farms are located in just three states: California, Arizona, and New Mexico. California alone makes up 99% of this acreage, with 312,000 acres planted in 22 of that state’s counties.

Major Pistachio Varieties

Pistachio trees are dioecious. They require both male and female pistachio seeds to pollinate, in an approximate ratio of one male tree for every 20 female trees. Each variety of female pistachio tree is optimally paired with a specific variety of male tree for the best yield.

There are 45 male and 30 female varieties of pistachio tree. The U.S. relies on just four each of commonly cultivated female and male pistachio trees.

The female varieties are:

  • Kermans: This is the standard pistachio grown in California. It matures later than other varieties and is pollenized by Peters.
  • Golden Hills: Golden Hills is a new variety that is harvested earlier and has a higher yield then Kerman.
  • Lost HIlls: Lost HIlls also harvests earlier than Kerman and produces a better yield.
  • Gum Drop: This is the newest cultivar, released by the University of California in 2016. It has a similar yield to all other varieties but is harvested even earlier than both Golden Hills and Lost Hills.

Male pollenizer varieties include:

  • Peters: This is the primary pollenizer for Kerman and can service up to 11 female trees.
  • Randy: Randy is a good match for both Golden Hills and Lost Hills due to its early flowering.
  • Famoso: This can also be used to pollenize Kerman as it matches Kerman’s flowering dates.
  • Tejon: The earliest of the flowering male pistachios, this works best for Gumdrop. It’s also ideal for Golden Hills and Lost Hills when low chill requires earlier pollenizing.
pistachio branch

Pistachio Lifecycle

How do pistachios grow? Pistachio growing strikes a delicate balance between the perfect semi-arid climate and the correct growing conditions.

Climate matters in that like other fruit trees, pistachios require chill hours in order to flower. This is the time period spent below 45 degrees during the dormant cycle in the winter and early spring. For example, Kerman varieties need 800 chill hours to produce blossoms, which will eventually produce drupes.

Trees take anywhere from five to six years to produce pistachios. They reach their mature production five years later and then produce nuts in an alternate bearing cycle each year. This may seem like a long time to wait for a full harvest, but each tree can produce for up to 100 years.

In the Northern Hemisphere, harvest time occurs from late August to early October. The hulls of the pistachios change from green to pinkish yellow, and the thin hull separates from the inner shell. This epicarp is easy to remove with a simple squeeze between your fingers. Once the shell begins to split, they are ready.

Pistachios are harvested with the use of mechanical shakers. Once the epicarps, or outermost seed layers, are removed within 24 hours of harvest, the raw nuts are dried and can be roasted and seasoned or shipped in their dry state.

Pistachio Soil Needs

Pistachios are shockingly adaptable to a variety of soil types but prefer sandy loam soils that are deep and light. They also require high calcium carbonate levels and tolerate high salinity, which is key for farmers as California faces growing issues with soil salinity.

Above all, soil should be well-drained. Pistachios will not do well in wet, heavy soil.

Pistachio Water Needs

Another key aspect of knowing how pistachios are grown is understanding their water needs.

Growing pistachios is a water intensive act. This can be problematic seeing as how this crop is exclusively cultivated in areas of the American West facing serious drought conditions.

Fortunately, once established, pistachio trees do not die when water is scarce. They simply slow their metabolism and wait for moisture levels to increase before they begin to produce again. This can help save trees from dying during short periods of scarce water.

Pistachio trees require significant water during July and August: 50 gallons per tree, per day. (That sounds like a lot, but it’s appreciably less than almond trees, another boon to growers).

Water can be delivered with drip irrigation that keeps soil moist to a depth of four feet. Since pistachio trees do not like “wet feet,” this type of irrigation helps deliver the water they need without puddling.

Pistachio Market Size and Price

The 950 pistachio producers in the U.S.add significantly to their states’ economies. In California, pistachio growing alone adds $1.6 billion to the state, while Arizona and New Mexico contribute $16 million each.

At today’s prices, the profit per acre of pistachios in the U.S. ranges from $2,400 to $6,000. The establishment cost per acre for pistachios in the U.S. ranges from $17,000 to $45,000 per acre. While demand trends are strong, the limited supply of land with suitable climate, soil, and water characteristics, coupled with the capital commitment keep supply constrained.

Globally, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of pistachio production is 4% over the past decade. In 2021, the pistachio market was set to reach almost four billion, with a projected increase to just over five billion by 2029.

unshelled pistachios

Pistachio Uses and End Markets

The form of the pistachio influences both its end use and distribution. Pistachio forms include:

  • Whole
  • Powdered
  • Roasted
  • Splits

These forms have varied uses, including:

  • Baking and confectionery
  • Beverages
  • Snacks
  • Nut butter and other spreads
  • Non-dairy milk products

Pistachios are a durable product that can be distributed not only to wholesalers as a raw ingredient for foods but also to smaller markets such as convenience stores.

Challenges to Pistachio Growth

There are a few challenges that have the potential to limit the growth of this crop.

  • With the largest pistachio producing state in the U.S. focusing on one main cultivar — Kerman — there is tremendous pressure placed on pistachio processors to move this crop to market.
  • Climate change may be affecting the number of chill hours which can lead to lower yields.
  • Persistent drought that leads to low groundwater levels can cause damage to pistachio trees.

However, even with potential challenges the market for this crop remains strong, with steady, consistent yields and high demand.

Final Thoughts

Besides being a luxurious snack, pistachios are a major player in western U.S. permanent crop production, and the market for them is growing worldwide. Take a look at our offerings page to keep an eye out for upcoming orchard investments.

Megan Blankenship grew up in the rural Arkansas Ozarks in a family of small farmers. Before joining AcreTrader, she worked in advertising and communications for top-tier agriculture clients. She loves writing about land, farming, and the people who care about them.

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