Pistachio politics

Tip: Try the pistachio ice cream at Hot Italian.

Tip: Try the pistachio ice cream at Hot Italian.

When the United States halted most commercial activity with Iran in 1979, imports from the world’s leader in pistachio production abruptly halted. In effect, California’s own pistachio industry took root as San Joaquin Valley farmers capitalized on the new market gap. It took 10 years as they waited for the notoriously slow-growing trees to mature into production, but eventually the crops came and business boomed.

A total embargo against Iran since 1995 has locked local nut growers into a sunny future, and today California produces 400 million pounds of pistachios (compare to a million tons of almonds), with production poised to double in the next five years.

Harry and Jane Dewey, though a tiny operation based in Yolo, rode that initial wave of growth after planting their first pistachio trees in 1980—a 10-acre grove. Most of the plantings at the time were occurring in the San Joaquin Valley, where the crop had been tested before, and Yolo County was experimental territory.

“But when it looked like the trees would produce, we put in more,” Harry said.

Today, the Deweys tend 30 acres of pistachios, shaking the trees of 60 tons of nuts (give or take) each September and October and selling them both raw and roasted directly to retailers like Nugget Markets, and straight to the public at the weekend farmers’ markets in Sacramento.

The Deweys grow the Kerman pistachio—but then, so does everyone in California, where the industry is as homogenized as ag industries get. 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, where the species originated.

Want to have a taste? Better make friends with Iran.