Pistachio industry expands in IWV

Linda Saholt

News Review Correspondent

Pistachio industry expands in IWVThe west side of the Indian Wells Valley will again turn green — not with alfalfa, but with pistachio trees. These drought-tolerant trees are said to use less water than alfalfa, and indeed many of them are planted on land on which alfalfa was formerly grown, on Leliter Road, near Brown Road and north of Inyokern.

For the past year, preparations and planting have been under way for a large new pistachio orchard. Rod Stiefvater, owner of the orchard and Mojave Pistachios, LLC, lives in Bakersfield. He also has pistachio groves in other parts of the county, including the Bakersfield area.

As of press time, Mojave Pistachios has planted approximately 112,000 trees, which will take six years to mature before they begin to produce a crop.

“With a lot of planning, Mojave Pistachios is being very diligent in developing the new orchard, working to have the least impact on their neighbors and the environment. Once the property has been previewed, it is surveyed and then fenced,” said Elaine Mead, previous co-partner of Brown Road Farming Company and longtime Inyokern resident.

“The tractors that clear the brush are accompanied by observers on ATVs. Once the brush is removed, a cover crop is planted to tie the soil down to help alleviate dust and wind erosion. Mojave Pistachios appreciates their neighbors’ tolerance of this process. Additional land has been purchased which will not be developed, but will remain in its natural state for habitat and species protection.”

Mead and her husband Larry have been working closely with Stiefvater as the orchard develops. “I feel this new venture by Mojave Pistachios is great for the valley,” she said.

“Rod is bringing diversification to the local economy, which is greatly needed. He has helped the local employment as well as supporting local businesses. Employment will vary during each stage of development. Mojave Pistachios tries to use as much local labor as possible. Materials and supplies are purchased locally when they are available or can be ordered by local merchants.”

Before the trees were planted, underground water supply lines were installed. These lines feed the above-ground hose and drippers for each individual tree. Weather stations and temperature recorders have been placed strategically to indicate when frost could be a concern for the trees. Pistachios are self-pollinating.

“My team and I look forward to being a part of the farming and business communities that support the Indian Wells Valley,” said Stiefvater. “I am anxious to join the other local pistachio growers and add to the local production of these very healthy nuts.”

Mojave Pistachios joins several other pistachio growers in our valley. As the pistachio industry expands in the valley, it is also expanding in many areas of California and Arizona. There are currently about 175,000 bearing acres in California, producing an estimated 500 million pounds of nuts in an average year. The nuts are harvested in September.

Pistachios are an alternate-bearing crop, meaning they produce a heavier crop every other year. This year is predicted to be an on-year crop, meaning heavy production of an estimated 550 to 600 million pounds. California produces approximately 95 percent of the pistachios grown in the United States.

In Kern County the last on-year crop was in 2010, when the total pistachio crop in the county was the third in the top five crops by value, coming to $533,847,000. In 2011 Kern County’s pistachio crop ranked sixth, at $389,527,000.

Pistachios are a native of the Middle East. The Kerman variety was named and introduced in Chico after potential growers made trips to the Middle East to gather seeds, starting in the late 1800s. The first commercial plantings, in the mid-1960s, were in the Terra Bella area near Porterville and the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The major growing and exporting country had been Iran, until California recently overtook that position. The continual increases in exports of California nuts (pistachios, almonds and walnuts) help in reducing the U.S.’s negative balance of trade.

One of the reasons for California’s success is that the product never makes contact with the ground. Harvesters with elevated sheets shake the nuts off the tree and convey them into bins. Hulling and drying take place soon after harvesting. Both processes reduce food safety concerns. California has a special reputation in the world for high-quality food safety in specialty crops, with pistachios being one of them, according to Mead.

Locally grown nuts can be purchased under the “Wonderful” brand packaged by Paramount Farms, a processing and growing company. An estimated 95 percent of pistachios are eaten as snacks, roasted and salted.

Story First Published: 2012-08-29