California grower Brian Blackwell believes the above-average rainfall and cool temperatures this spring provide a double-edged sword for the 2010 Western pistachio crop.

“We don’t know how many (shell) blanks we’ll have due to the lousy weather during bloom time,” Blackwell said. “We had plenty of winter chill hours but the problem was the unusual high rain and wind events. We don’t know yet if the crop was adversely affected by the weather.

Blackwell grows pistachios in Kern and Tulare counties in the southern San Joaquin Valley. He owns and operates his own pistachio farm, Blackwell Farms. Blackwell also wears the hat of president of the Blackwell Farming Company where he manages pistachio orchards for other landowners.

Blackwell is chairman of the Western Pistachio Association.

U.S. pistachios are grown in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. California growers produce about 98 percent of the total crop.

The Western Pistachio Association represents growers across the tri-state region. Executive director Richard Matoian, Fresno, Calif., is hearing a mixed bag of crop projections from members ranging from a good crop to a little light.

Matoian said, “As positive as the rain was this spring, growers like rain but not this time of the year (spring).”

Harvest delays

The rain and cool spells could delay harvest this fall. Matoian said the crop was running 7 to 10 days behind (in mid-June).

“Growers would rather have an early maturing crop than a late maturing crop,” Matoian said. “A later crop has more potential for insect damage. Fall rains can reduce crop quality.”

Pistachio acreage in the three-state pistachio belt is about 210,000 acres including about 125,000 bearing acres and about 85,000 non-bearing acres.

A big push in pistachio tree plantings from 2004-2008 included up to about 25,000 acres annually. Plantings have slowed to the 5,000 acre/year range. Matoian believes lower plantings are tied to uncertain water availability in some areas plus some market uncertainty.

Pistachio exports five years ago totaled about 35 percent of total shipments. Exports today, Matoian says, account for about 65 percent of total shipments.

It is too early to predict the exact size of the 2010 California pistachio crop, yet Blackwell predicts an average crop, perhaps in the 350 million-plus pound range.

Kern County received more rain this spring than the last five to six years, Blackwell says. About 7 inches fell in the Bakersfield area. The area has averaged 3.5 to 4 inches in the spring annually over the last five years.

“We received almost double the rain but it was the timing that created problems,” Blackwell said. “The rain started in April and fell about every 10 days. In some fields up north I have already applied three fungicide sprays (as of mid-June); that is virtually unheard of in our area. The rains pounded us through the bloom period.”

Variable yield potential

Bob Beede, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) farm advisor, Kings County, says the overall southern San Joaquin Valley pistachio crop load varies tremendously by orchard.

“Mature orchards which bore heavily in 2009 are understandably light in 2010,” Beede said. “Young orchards unexpectedly low in crop load last year have an abundant crop this year in most cases.”

Pest control advisers and growers are reporting misshaped shells in young trees, Beede says, possibly caused by a temporary deficiency of calcium during the cool weather and its impact on the translocation of macronutrients.

Beede suggests the 2010 California pistachio crop could fall in the 350 to 375 million-pound range. The 350 million-pound yield is considered average but the number is a moving target due to increased pistachio plantings.

“The new average could easily become 375 million pounds once all the young trees begin to bear,” Beede said. “We anticipate young trees will make a significant contribution to the 2010 pistachio crop, even with the relatively light crop in many mature orchards due to alternate bearing.”

About 95 percent of all pistachios are the Kerman variety.

Late frost scare

Arizona pistachio grower Jim Graham is breathing easier following several late frost scares in early May. Early morning temperatures on the orchard exterior plunged to 26 degrees. The critical cold temperature for pistachios is 29 degrees on Graham’s farm located at 4,300 feet above sea level. Wind machines prevented crop loss.

Graham and wife Ruth own and operate Cochise Groves, LLC, a 160-acre pistachio ranch in Cochise located in the Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County.

Pistachios are an alternate-bearing crop and 2010 will be an off-year for most Western pistachio growers, yet Graham’s trees are in the on-year cycle this year. Weather events can switch the internal production clock in trees, even on an orchard-by-orchard basis.

“I’m pretty happy with how my crop looks right now,” Graham said. “It is a good crop but not my largest crop ever. I would be delighted to get a 4,000-pound-per-acre yield.”

Graham is excited by potential grower crop prices this year. Worldwide pistachio stocks are down while demand is strong.

“I’d like to see the price for premium split inshell No. 1 grade pistachios approach the $2 a pound range,” Graham said.

Craig Kallsen, UCCE farm advisor, Kern County, says the number of heat units this summer will ultimately determine whether the pistachio harvest will be on time or late this fall.

cblake@farmpress.com