The nut state

California supplying the world’s almonds, walnuts and pistachios

Never doubt the potential of the California nut industry, which keeps growing, and growing, and growing. In 2007, the state’s combined walnut, pistachio and almond acreage totaled 973,000 acres. Today, the total is more than 1.1 million acres. Pistachios account for the least of them all—137,000 acres—yet it’s the fastest growing of the three industries. For each crop, 2010’s harvest was a record rake, and industry captains are actively groping the earth for further expansion.

They’re looking toward Europe and, especially, China, where more and more California nuts are going each year. In the walnut sector, California exported 40 percent of the harvest in 2002 and nearly 60 percent last year, according to records supplied by the California Walnut Board and Commission in Folsom. China is an increasingly important buyer.

Among California’s nuts, the almond is king. Acreage is as high as ever, at 740,000 and growing, and 2010’s crop weighed a staggering 1.5 billion pounds—about 80 percent of all almonds grown on Earth. About 441 million pounds went to the European Union last year.

So did reps of the Almond Board of California. Concerned that they might not be making as much money as feasibly possible in the global market, they met in April with European nutritionists and eminent media forces to design strategies to induce Europe’s long and lanky citizenry into habitual snacking on almonds, which the Almond Board touts as “the heart-healthiest nut.” Meanwhile, China has become the almond industry’s second-biggest export destination.

Even Western Nut Company, a tiny handling facility in Chico, sends 85 percent of its nuts, which it receives from farms statewide, by truck to Oakland and by ship to the wider world—and mostly to China.

At Bertagna Orchards just outside Chico, owners Ben and Berton Bertagna—father and son—grow 250 acres of almonds and are squeezing as many trees into an acre as possible.

“We’re putting in more trees, spacing them closer together, increasing the yields, and still the almonds keep moving,” the younger Bertagna says.

California’s pistachio industry took root relatively recently, in 1979, after the United States embargoed Iran. With imports abruptly blocked on pistachios from the world’s leading producer at the time, California farmers capitalized on the new market gap. It took 10 years as they waited for the notoriously slow-growing and wonderfully long-lived trees to mature into production, but eventually the crops came. Business boomed.

Dan Hutfless rode that first wave when he planted 230 acres of pistachios at Ord Bend Farms on Ord Ferry Road in the mid-1970s. A decade later he was in business. The on-again-off-again embargo against Iran worked to Hutfless’ favor as well as that of hundreds of other growers, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley. The state’s acreage has increased steadily, and in 2010 California produced 528 million pounds of pistachios, a figure poised to double in the next five years.

Today, demand for pistachios is tremendous—and growing especially fast in China. Five years ago, Hutfless says, California sent 5 million pounds of pistachios to the growing Asian giant; by last year, that figure had jumped to 50 million pounds—10 percent of the crop.

Hutfless grows the Kerman pistachio—but then, so does everyone in California, where the industry is as homogenized as farming gets. The Kerman is the female variety that produces the nut, and she works in cooperation with the Peters, the male that makes the pollen. Other varieties of both female and male trees are undergoing evaluation in experimental nurseries, and countless kinds exist in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Iran has been embargoed by the United States and abandoned by the European Union due to concerns about dangerous mycotoxins found recently on Iranian pistachios. As a result she has lost her crown and been surpassed in production by California, and she’s slipped into the “where-is-she-now?” category.

Which beckons us to wonder: When Hutfless’ pistachio trees are still blooming, fruiting and dropping nuts 500 years from now, where will we be then?