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Spanish pistachios overtake Iranian nuts

Ángel Marqués Ávila. Journalist

The "new green gold" is revolutionizing agriculture, especially inland on the Iberian Peninsula, due in particular to their high profitability, with the result that they are becoming a very attractive product for Spanish farmers.

The pistachio, a long-term commitment

The average price of conventional shelled pistachios and dried with 6-7% moisture has been 7 euros per kilo, which is considered very stable. The average price of organic pistachios has been 9 euros per kilo, with a clear upward trend in recent years.

The area in Spain allocated to pistachios is more than 30,000 hectares. According to official 2018 data, Castile-La Mancha is the Spanish region with the largest growing area, with over 22,000 hectares and average production of 1,200 tons, despite the fact that the trees are still quite young.

In the last four years, the cultivated area has increased exponentially, from 7,400 hectares in 2015 to more than 22,000 in 2018, with implantation levels of 5,000 ha/year in the last three years.

In terms of provinces, Ciudad Real takes first place, with 8,000 ha, followed by Toledo (6,027 ha), Albacete (4,887 ha), Cuenca (2,800 ha) and Guadalajara (265 ha).

Around 80% of pistachio farms in the region are on dry land, and around 35% are organic. The average yield (nuts with 6% moisture and unshelled) on dry land, as from the 8th year, is 1,000 kg per ha per year.

On irrigated land, from the 6th to the 10th year, with 1,500 m3 of water per ha per year, the average yield is around 1,500 kg per ha per year, and from the 10th to the 20th year, with 3,000 m3 of water per ha per year, the yield is 2,000-2,500 kg per ha.

The Manchego pistachio, one of the best in the world

The Manchego pistachio stands out for having superior organoleptic qualities than American pistachios. The quality of our products will most likely continue since this is attributable to a substantially shorter vegetative cycle, which is linked to smaller trees and, therefore, more efficient photosynthesis. Global warming is damaging production in California and benefiting trees on the Iberian Peninsula. The salt content in water in Iran will lead to a decline in the medium term in Iranian production.

The US and Iran are the largest pistachio producers in the world. High demand for this nut around the world contrasts with supply. Focusing only on Europe, it's estimated that more than 300,000 ha are needed to avoid imports, address pistachio production for the industry, and assume consumption will increase in the next decade. In this context, there is only one country on the continent (except for Turkey) with the capacity to produce this quality nut: Spain, specifically the southern half of the Peninsula, excluding approximately the first 100 kilometers of its coast.

Immediate challenges

One aspect Spanish pistachios have to improve is promoting it, not just as a snack, but also in other applications, both industrial and food-related, such as in cosmetics, ice cream, cooking, etc. (the same applications for which almonds are used).

In the future, Spanish pistachios have two main challenges: achieve industry unity in Spain, and promote farms based on models that have been proven by more than 30 years of research.

Currently, a good part of the industry has recommended other models for more than a decade (due to commercial interests), which already reflect errors that could notably slow down development of the crop in Spain in the coming years.

2019, the best year in the history of Spanish pistachios

For José Francisco Couceiro López, a researcher with the El Chaparrillo Center for Agro-Environmental Research (IRIAF) who also holds a PhD in Agricultural Engineering, if the weather is "normal" in 2019, it could be the best year in the history of the pistachio, and production could very well peak.

When asked whether Spanish consumers prefer to buy Spanish or Iranian pistachios at the supermarket or at specialized shops, he says, "We don't have specific data about this topic, but since Spanish pistachio production is so small, consumers in Spain don't know that they are better quality than those from California and Iran, whereas international consumers do know, they're in high demand and willing to pay more."

In Spain, around 1,200 tons are produced, of which most are exported because people are willing to pay more for higher quality nuts.

Growth in the cultivated area is surpassed only by almonds, and we're taking about around 10,000 ha per year. As for consumption, Spanish pistachios are increasingly in demand, but there isn't sufficient production in Spain and there's a shortage for this reason. The whole world is talking about Spanish pistachios, but only a few are able to savor them, according to Couceiro, who also says that the main problem at present is that Spain can't meet the current demand for thousands of tons of Spanish pistachios.

The most expensive

Spanish pistachios are the most expensive in international markets, due to their large size and great flavor. The loss of flavor is most notable in American pistachios, following by Iranian ones, the quality of the latter having deteriorated considerably in recent years. Spanish pistachios are now among the most recognized in the world.

It's worth noting that the quality of our pistachios is exceptional in every way, from an organoleptic and organic standpoint, and they are a leader in European markets.

In recent years, the region of Castile-La Mancha has become a leader on the national and international pistachio scene. For Couceiro, the reason is as follows: Almost 33 years ago, a crazy agronomist who received a scholarship to do research at the El Chaparrillo Center was told to find alternatives to traditional crops by the regional government at the time, and he decided to try pistachios. It worked, and 10 years after the project began, word spread, first through the province, then through the region and finally throughout Spain.

The pistachio, a profitable, sustainable business

This product might very well replace olive trees as Spain's new green gold. It's a crop that could stop rural depopulation, offering people a profitable, sustainable way of life. It's also resistant to the end of the PAC subsidies, since it doesn't receive any aid. In short, Spanish farmers are betting on this crop for decades to come. If anyone tried to guess which nut we're talking about, very few would get it right. We're talking about the pistachio.

It's the source of a real boom among farmers using non-irrigated land, who are trading loss-making grains for pistachios. Obviously, they're not doing it all at once but, rather, hectare by hectare. Pistachios, despite enormous expectations, is not the "golden calf." It needs between 6 and 7 years of intensive care to start to bear fruit. During that time, there are zero profits and considerable costs, around 30,000 euros per hectare. But once production gets going, the profit margins are "by far the largest among all traditional crops," with the capacity to continue for decades.

"There are few countries in the world with the capacity to produce them, and there is growing demand, with an annual increase far greater than for other nuts. It has the same nutritional profile as almonds and its uses in cooking are the same if not superior," says Couceiro, who is also possibly the leading Spanish pistachio expert.

The pistachio tree is similar to the almond tree, and it thrives perfectly in difficult climates.

Ideal for interior Spain

The pistachio is a fruit that comes from semi-arid climates. It thrives in dry climates and needs little water. Iran and California (US) produce it today almost exclusively. In Europe, Spain has the best climatic and geological conditions, but it only accounts for 0.02% of global production. Sicily, which has hundred-year-old trees, is the only leader in Europe. The main issue holding back pistachios from exploding in Spain is the idiosyncrasy of the southern Peninsula. It is very difficult to convince farmers to switch from an extensive single crop, like grains or grapes, to a tree that will take years to produce a product. People are not used to waiting. They think about the here and now and not about future profitability, but I believe that in Andalusia, and also in Castile-La Mancha, Extremadura, Madrid and Aragon, growth will be exponential.

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