US ban on Iranian pistachios leaves California farmers with domestic market

By Olivia Munoz, AP
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

US ban on Iranian pistachios helps Calif. farmers

MADERA, Calif. — California farmers may be the big beneficiaries of a U.S. ban on Iranian pistachios that began Wednesday.

President Barack Obama signed the ban on July 1 in response to Iran’s nuclear policies. It went into effect as California’s farmers were in the midst of their harvest.

The United States and Iran have been vying for the title of No. 1 pistachio producer. California, which grows more than 95 percent of U.S. pistachios, has doubled acreage devoted to the nut in the past decade. Bad weather in Iran also has helped put the U.S. in the top spot in the past couple of years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The ban leaves the domestic market, worth $700 million, almost exclusively to U.S. growers.

“This is a big bonus to our growers,” said Richard Matoian, executive director of the Fresno-based Western Pistachio Association, a marketing board that represents growers in California, Arizona and New Mexico. “Of course, we still have to see how this affects us in foreign markets. Those Iranian pistachios need to go somewhere.”

Growers in California’s Central Valley started harvesting nuts from 18-foot trees earlier this month. The process was mechanized in the 1960s with machines that shake the droopy-limbed trees and send a hail of pastel green nuts onto large slanted flatbeds. The nuts then roll along conveyor belts into large bins that will eventually weight about 1,000 pounds each.

At the peak of the season, Agri-World Cooperative has trucks carrying $45,000 worth of raw nuts going out 24 hours a day, said Richard Pasley, manager of the 3,200-acre pistachio farm in Madera, which sits in middle of the fruitful San Joaquin Valley.

The nuts are taken to large processing plants a little further south, where they’ll be roasted and salted. Machines will pry open any stubborn shells that didn’t split on their own.

The pistachios will be packed under various labels and shipped out all over the world. Two-thirds of the U.S. crop is typically sold overseas, and the USDA expects exports to increase 10 percent this year. Overall, the crop is estimated at 360 million pounds this year. Matoian said he expects production to double by 2017.

The U.S. has banned imports of Iranian pistachios before.

The first ban came after U.S. Embassy employees were taken hostage in Iran in 1979. The embargo was lifted in 1981 but reinstated from 1987 to 2000 during the Iraq-Iran war. Former President Bill Clinton lifted the ban in March 2000, believing progress was being made in relations with Iran, Matoian said.

Iran shipped about 1 million pounds of pistachios to the U.S. in the past 12 months.

Those in the pistachio industry said competition between the two countries may now be focused in foreign markets.

California pistachio growers have long exported to Europe but now have their sites set on Asia.

Matoian made a marketing trip to China earlier this month with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and farm leaders. Sales of U.S. pistachios in China have increased from $5 million to $50 million in the past five years, he said. The delegation also went to Japan and South Korea.

Here in the U.S., savvy growers are renewing marketing efforts after a national recall last year due to a salmonella scare. The Western Pistachio Association hired a Chicago-based firm to create its website, which offers recipes and endorsements by medical experts.

Also, Paramount Farms, the country’s largest pistachio processor, has invested $15 million in a campaign that has minor celebrities — such as actor Christopher Knight, who played Peter Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, and Levi Johnston, the teen father of Sarah Palin’s grandson — promoting the nuts.

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