Fires hurt pine nut harvest

Reno resident Patty Dickens told us last week, “I went to Save Mart looking for pine nuts to add to my stuffing for my tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner redux. The grocer said that fires and drought have destroyed this year’s potential harvest, but I could buy unshelled ones at Safeway for $22 a pound.”

The pine nut harvests have already been troubled, and the fires added to a combination of difficulties facing harvesters, such as competition from Asian imports.

Pine nut crops may not be doing well in Nevada, either. Two years ago, Texas commercial harvester Dayer LeBaron told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “There’s definitely something going on. Being in these mountains for 40 years, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I know something’s going on.”

The fruits of Nevada pine nuts, previously known for their fullness, have been shrinking, and so have the number of commercial harvesters—LeBaron was one of six left in 2016, and he predicted then that number would continue falling.

In fact, there was no commercial harvest in Nevada this year. The auction at which commercial harvesters bid to take pine nuts from marked sections of forest fell flat, according to Bureau of Land Management lead forester Coreen Francis, who said, “There were no bidders because there were very few pine nuts anywhere to be found.”

She said there are “high years and low years” in the supply.

In 2016, the commercial auction held in Ely attracted six harvesters who paid $31,625 to take up to 126,500 pounds of pine nuts from 11 areas in eastern Nevada, the RJ reported that year.

The pine nuts have an important history in Nevada. A staple of tribal diets in the 1800s, the arrival of whites in the Great Basin put pressure on the supply, both because whites started harvesting them, too, and because the invention of square set timbering for mines by Comstock engineer Philip Deidesheimer in 1860 caused swaths of the Sierra to be denuded of trees.

Supplies fluctuated as mining booms came and went, causing friction between whites and tribes, which eventually began marketing to whites around the West. In 1883, tribal shipments of pine nuts from Carson City on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad reached 75,000 pounds at a time when the harvest was believed to be only half finished, with San Franciscans a big market. (The sale of pine nuts may have benefited from a notion that they were good for lung trouble.)

But two years later, the New York Times reported, “The Piute Indians are said to be starving on their barren reservation in Nevada. … Almost their sole means of subsistence has been pine nuts, fish from Pyramid Lake, and rabbits, latterly the only game on the reservation. Sarah Winnemucca, a member of the tribe, who lecture[d] in the East on the condition of the Piutes, and who is now spending a few days in this city, says: ‘My people are utterly destitute, and numbers of them are famishing in the snow.’”

Dickens, referring to the current difficulty obtaining pine nuts, said, “I wonder if this [is] the new normal and a sign of extinct wildlife, foods and living spaces that the human race is blindly and unapologetically accelerating.”