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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?
- Intro To Pistachios
- Where Are Pistachios Grown in the World?
- Major Pistachio Varieties
- Pistachio Lifecycle
- What are Some Challenges to Pistachio Growth?
- What are Some Tailwinds to Pistachio Growth?
- Pistachio Uses and End Markets
- Final Thoughts
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.
Where Are Pistachios Grown in the World?
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.
While pistachios are grown commercially elsewhere in the world, the U.S. is responsible for over 60% of the global supply.
Pistachio trees do well in regions that have long, dry summers and cool winters. 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. Trees typically need 800-900 chill hours to produce the blossoms that will eventually produce drupes.
In the U.S., these climate requirements mean 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:
- Golden Hills: Golden Hills is a new variety that is harvested earlier and has a higher yield then Kerman.
- Kermans: This is the standard pistachio grown in California. It matures later than other varieties and is pollenized by Peters.
- 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:
- Randy: Randy is a good match for both Golden Hills and Lost Hills due to its early flowering.
- Peters: This is the primary pollenizer for Kerman and can service up to 11 female trees.
- 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.
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 pistachio trees have been known to 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.
Image Credit: Pistachio Growers Association
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.
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.
What are Some 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.
- The U.S. relies primarily on exports for the expansion of its markets.
- 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.
What are Some Tailwinds to Pistachio Growth?
- Over the last 20 years, pistachio prices have increased by 10% on average.
- American pistachios have tripled their market share in the past two decades thanks to supportive marketing programs, experimentation, and technological innovation.
- The U.S. is the primary global supplier of pistachios, leveraging the climate and infrastructure of the San Joaquin Valley, California to supply more than 60% of the world’s demand.
Learn more about recent trends in the pistachio market in our Pistachio Market Overview.
Pistachio Uses and End Markets
The form of the pistachio influences both its end use and distribution. Pistachio forms include:
These forms have varied uses, including:
- Baking and confectionery
- 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.
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.
The above content is not intended to be a comparison between products, but is intended for general, educational and informational purposes only. Any performance noted is historical and there is no guarantee any trends will continue. All investing involves risks, including the complete loss of principal. Diversification does not guarantee a profit or protect against loss in a declining market. It is important for each investor to review their investment objectives, risk tolerance, tax liability and liquidity needs before investing. Investment vehicles have differences in fee structure, risk factors and objectives. Investments are considered speculative, involve a high degree of risk and therefore are not suitable for all investors.
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