By Hayley Boriss, Agricultural Issues Center, University of California.
Updated November 2013 by Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University.
Pistachio (Pistacia vera) trees originated in the dry lands and desert climates of Asia Minor. They were introduced into the United States in 1854, but the U.S. commercial industry did not develop until 1976. Over the last 30 years, the U.S. pistachio industry has grown rapidly in California, the major commercial pistachio-producing state in the United States.
U.S. pistachio production in 2012 jumped to 551.0 million pounds, or 275,500 tons, up 24 percent from the previous year. NASS (2013) reported a yield of 3,100 pounds per acre, compared to 2,900 pounds in 2011.
The average grower price for pistachios in 2012 was $2.02 per pound. As a result, that year's pistachio crop was valued at $1.1 billion, up 27 percent from 2011. (NASS 2013)
Approximately 98 percent of U.S. pistachios are produced in California. Other states raising pistachios include Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah.
Tthe United States is generally the second leading producer (and exporter) of pistachios behind Iran, providing 24 percent of the world total.
Most pistachios are sold as unshelled nuts as opposed to shelled nuts. In 2012 464 million pounds of unshelled pistachios were sold, while only 87 million pounds were sold shelled (NASS 2013). The unshelled nuts are primarily sold for domestic consumption as a roasted and salted snack food. A smaller portion of nuts, often those that are not usable for nonmanufactured snacks because they have not split or are badly stained, are used as ingredients in candies, baked goods, ice cream, confectioneries and flavorings. They can also be added to dressings, casseroles and other dishes.
Pistachio growers successfully led an initiative to establish a pistachio federal marketing order. The marketing order went into effect August 1, 2005 and is designed to increase demand for pistachios and enhance future grower returns through quality control regulations. Funded by assessments on California pistachio producers, the order establishes maximum tolerance levels for aflatoxin, mandates testing and certification for aflatoxin and sets minimum nut quality standards.
The Kerman variety, the leading female commercial variety in the United States, originated from seed found in the Kerman region of Iran. Kerman pistachios account for nearly all production because of their large size, kernel texture and widely split shells.
Pistachio trees require several years of growth until they begin bearing nuts, with significant production occurring at 7 to 10 years and peak production occurring at 20 to 25 years. Like other nut trees, pistachios are alternate bearing, often producing a large crop one year followed by a lighter crop the next year. Once established, the trees can be productive for years if conditions are favorable. However, the life expectancy of commercial pistachios is estimated at about 50 to 80 years, when the trees become too large to harvest mechanically.
Pistachios grow in grape-like clusters, with each nut's shell surrounded by a fleshy hull. The nut is ready for harvest in early fall when the hull takes on a rosy light hue and the interior shell splits open. Pistachios are mechanically shaken from the trees and are sent to processing mills to be hulled and dried. The hull must be removed and the nuts dried within 12 to 24 hours from harvest or the shell becomes stained. Before the U.S. industry developed equipment to decrease processing time, imported pistachios often had dyed shells to hide staining.
Like many tree nuts, pistachios are susceptible to aflatoxin contamination in the growing, harvesting and processing phases of production. Aflatoxins are toxic and carcinogenic compounds produced by a fungus that can grow on the nut. The risk of aflatoxin contamination can be reduced through drying and proper storage.
Most U.S. pistachios orchards are irrigated. Unfavorable weather, including mild winter temperatures and humid or wet summers can result in poor kernel development and quality as well as promote aflatoxin contamination. In addition, strong winds or rainfall during blooming months can interfere with fertilization and thereby fruit set. The alternate bearing nature of pistachios, coupled with a prolonged period required for maturity can significantly affect total crop size from year to year (as well as longer cycles), creating variability in prices and total crop value. This has led to industry implementation of inventory building in high production years to compensate for subsequent years of decreased supply.
The price of pistachios depends on the degree of shell splitting and the color of the kernel. Pistachios enclosed in shells that have not opened are worth less than those that have opened, specifically because if not split, the shells must be opened by mechanical means. Kernel color is another factor in determining value—the deeper the green of the kernel, the higher the value. In 2012 pistachio nuts brought $2.02 per pound, up from $1.98 in 2011 (NASS 2013).
U.S. consumption of pistachios remains low relative to other nuts, but per person consumption of pistachios increased to 0.25 pounds in 2011 (ERS). Nutritional research and advertising of the health benefits of nuts have helped increase consumption of all nuts. Pistachios in particular are rich in calcium, vitamin B6, thiamine, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, copper and fiber.
U.S. pistachio exports have been increasing in recent years. In 2012, the value reached nearly $1.7 billion, up 38 percent from 2011. The leading destination for pistachio exports was Hong Kong (nearly $379.3 million), followed by Belgium (nearly $104.9 million). A majority of shipments to Hong Kong are re-exported to China where consumers are increasingly looking for this product in baked and confectionary goods. China, Netherlands and Canada are also significant markets for U.S. pistachios. (FAS)
FAS reported that pistachio nuts valued at $9.2 million, a 74 percent jump from the previous year, were imported in 2012, primarily from Turkey, followed by Hong Kong and Italy.
Administrative Committee for Pistachios.
California Pistachio Research Board
Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook, Economic Research Service (ERS), USDA.