Acotanc: About Pistachios in WA

About Pistachios in WA

Author: John Duff & Bert Hayes
Agricultural and Natural Resource Management Consultant
E-mail: [email protected]
Organization: John Duff & Associates
Suite 5, 110 Robinson Avenue
Belmont WA 6104
Phone: +61 8-94750753 Fax: +61 8-94750322
E-mail: [email protected]

Bert Hayes established a pistachio orchard in WA about 13 years ago, at a time when very little information was available about them. This is the story of his experiences and problems along the way.

(John Duff)
Bert Hayes and I have come along to speak about pistachio. (overhead to introduce the nut) I am an agricultural and natural resource management consultant. Bert Hayes is a pistachio grower. I am an idiot expert on pistachios, having looked at them in the last four years. I first looked at them on Valena (?) Farm, owned by Laurie Pittenham. I looked at the pistachios that Laurie has been growing, and I went to ask Bert about them at the Dowerin Field Days. Bert told me all about them and then he said, "I want to develop a business plan. Could you help me with that?" I said I would love to. I helped Bert with the business land and he told me all about pistachios. I will do a little introduction, and then Bert will tell you the technical details. He has been growing them for about 13 years.

Our talk will introduce 11 key features and we will talk a little about the industry and the world picture, California, Australia, WA. Then Bert will talk a little about his operation and the things he has learned from his operation and his travels around the world, looking at pistachios. I will talk a little about water requirements and finish up with some economics of pistachios.

(Bert Hayes)
Pistachio is native to Iran, which is still the biggest grower in the world to date. Pistachio has male and female trees. It is very hard to tell them apart, only a trained person can tell one from another. Usually there are measures taken in orchard management to identify them very clearly, so any budwood isn't taken from the wrong tree.

They are deciduous, apically dominant. You can see from these trees that they are just shooting straight up. They need to be topped at a certain level to encourage shaping in growth. They are wind-pollinated so the male trees need to be put in around the orchards so that the pollen is carried by the wind. Bees and birds don't have anything to do with pollination. The pollen is actually a very, very fine powder that blows in the wind, up to 7 km.

They grow 6 to 8 m tall approximately. Usually a tree would be 25 or 30 years old to reach that size. You are looking at 6 or 7 years for first production. That can depend a lot on how the tree is looked after and managed. Some trees may take a lot longer than that. A few trees might be earlier--perhaps 5 years. The fruit grows in bunches and look much like grapes. I took a photograph and took it to Rabbit Photos to be made into a large poster, and the girl wanted to know if they were my grapes.

They are drought resistant. They will grow without irrigation, but if you want to grow them as a commercial orchard they do need to be irrigated and fertilised, to get peak production. They are tolerant to saline irrigation water, but not saline soils. There has been quite a bit of work done, I have done some myself, regarding irrigating with saline water. They appear to be able to handle much more saline water than almost any other fruit tree. We will continue our trials on that. They do need to be grafted onto rootstock. The main variety that is grown for fruit is actually a hybrid.

We have finished our harvest, and I just grabbed a few remaining fruits off the trees this morning to show you. I couldn't find a suitable bunch to bring in. They do have a hull on the nut, which needs to be removed before they are eaten.

World production. Iran is the largest producer. In 1998 13,000 tonnes. The USA and Turkey and China are the next largest producers. Then Greece and Australia (Note: can't hear speaker--he is not using the microphone. They were showing overheads of world production) Pistachio tends to bear in alternate years. Production can vary dramatically from year to year.

There are some fairly big orchards in Australia, mostly along the Murray River in Victoria, South Australia and some in NSW. In WA there are probably about 12 growers. The orchards vary in size and type of management. Up until a year or so ago there has been very little production, as the trees are young. We got half a tonne from my orchard this year. We are at the stage now where our production should jump radically, because we have a lot of young trees coming on.

I have a farm between Northam and York. I had been planting a lot of River Gums and other trees around fence lines. One day I had a friend helping me, and we talked about how great it would be if we had trees that would produce something other than shade. That got me thinking about it. I saw an advertisement, actually one from WANATCA, I think, for a course on tree crops. So I went down each week for one night a week, to learn what I could grow. I came up with pistachios. Unfortunately, there was no one to give me a lead, I was sort of floundering in the dark. I got some rootstock seeds from the east. I tried to get them grafted or budded. For about 5 years I had people doing it, and had almost zero take. I was getting nowhere. I ended up buying grafted trees from the eastern states. I had a lot of problems with the treatment they had to have: they had to come over bare-rooted. I lost hundreds of them.

Eventually in late '93, I said to my wife that we had to get this sorted out. Either give it away, or get it sorted out, one way or the other. We decided to fly to Melbourne, borrow a car, and go and visit all the orchards we could find where people did it professionally, and learn. See if we could learn from these people. We did that. We spent a week over there. I came back from that week and budded 200 pistachio trees with 90% take, as a result of that trip.

The following year, there was a course advertised in California, the biggest pistachio schooling course in the world, held every 5 years in California. They get people from all over the world. So I went over there. From there, I built up my confidence and we basically got going and planted a lot of young trees that will be coming on next year.

We had to start going into processing ourselves, because there is no processing in WA. We are purchasing processing equipment. At the moment, we are looking at building a purpose-built building. Hopefully we can process nuts for other growers, as well as our own. We have also started a nursery, about 5 or 6 years ago. We sell pistachio trees, bud and graft our own rootstock. We are the only ones in WA who do that.

The main fruit-bearing pistachio growing in Australia is called Sirora. It was developed by the CSIRO, a hybrid variety. It is said to be one of the best pistachios in the world. They grow different types in other countries. In America they grow a variety called Kerman. In Iran they have 4 or 5 different types they grow over there. But probably at least 90% of the growers in Australia grow Sirora. There are various rootstock varieties. The one we use is terebinthus, probably one of the most common ones in Australia. The trees are usually budded, and it is usually done between January and March. The bud will often stay there dormant until the next year. You can see where the budding is done because the bark has a different texture.

The trees need to be pruned, mainly because they are apically dominant. You need to encourage branching. Probably the first summer you allow the tree to grow. In the winter it goes dormant. You top the tree at about 1.2 m. You encourage 3 or 4 primary branches, and you will probably top those once through the first summer. By the end of the first summer after it has been topped you will probably have the secondary growth starting. You keep that pattern going, in a vase shape. You probably would not have any branch longer than about 600 mm long, before you top it and encourage further branching. Some of the branches drop. When the trees are dormant in the winter, we would probably cut that branch.

They do need to be irrigated. There are various irrigation systems, and I think a lot of it depends on how much water you have. We run drippers because we have a very limited amount of water. We don't use sprinklers because half the water would blow over the countryside. There are usually a couple of drippers on each tree. We are probably going to upgrade that. We have two new dams going in, and there is also a bore. If we keep on improving our water, we will pump more water onto the trees. In the eastern states, they have up to 10 drippers on each tree.

Trees do need to be fertilised. In our place we use a granulated fertiliser just prior to spring, spread on the ground. We do a foliar spray, copper, zinc and boron. In February, we send leaves for a leaf analysis. We only recently started to do that. It is done by some people in South Australia who are the leading nutritional people for the pistachio industry in Australia.

Parrots are a problem, just as they are with other fruit and forestry trees. In WA, there is a major problem with Twenty-Eights, more so than any other state with almost any other species. I find a heck of a lot of different things in my orchard. This year is the best success we have had. We have an electronic system placed around, with speakers making screeching sounds, and we have a gas gun. Neither one on its own is satisfactory, but the combination is good. We have tried lots and lots of things. We have overhead (?) , we have (?) , we have mirrors, we have sprays on the trees, pepper sprays. We strung up electric wires designed to shock the birds when they perch, but it took them about 2 hours to figure that out. We have done all sorts of things. But we are pretty happy with the situation at the moment. There was maybe 5% damage in those areas where this is set up, which is pretty good. The gun goes off in the morning for two hours and in the evening for two hours. We have the electronic thing going all day, and we also shoot birds, as well. There are some gum trees where the birds sit and look down on the orchard, so we just keep shooting them down out of there. Only a small part of the orchard is producing at the moment. As more trees come into production, we will have to buy more of these things, keep moving them around.

(John Duff)
One of my main interest in pistachios is their ability to use water. I think there is far too much emphasis in this state on salinity. I think what that is doing is causing us to overlook the opportunities. The opportunity, of course, is water. If we can concentrate on the opportunity of water, industries like pistachio and specialty timbers...I think we are going to get into a situation somewhere down the track where everyone says, "we don't have enough water in this state." It is probably true, but in the wheatbelt, the farms have far too much water, it's a problem. The real problem is that we are not taking advantage of that opportunity. By taking advantage of that opportunity, we can become more sustainable. An industry like pistachio has the opportunity to use most, if not all, of the incoming rainfall. On Laurie Pittenham's farm he planted 4,000 to 8,000 pistachio trees, and he captured all the surface water he needed to irrigate those trees on a 3,000 ha property. On Bert's property, he will probably use more than his recharge. So if each farm took that principle on board, they would be looking for water, they would demand more water. Soon they would be getting into a situation where they wouldn't worry about salinity. Having said that, water is the key to pistachios.

(They weren't using the microphone and I can't hear this section at all well--what I have written could very well be quite wrong, and I had to leave large bits out)

I have a report here that Andrew Quinn from AgWA is sponsoring, which sums up the situation on pistachios. The Iranians came out recently and had a look at Bert's operation. They suggested that production depends on the number of trees per hectare. Bert has about 208 trees per hectare. The rate he uses is 225 litres per tree, which is a lot less than the recommended amount, and we are just interested to see how much production he will get. Bert is using reasonably salty water, as well. The trees are doing quite well.

I am a bit concerned about the amount of salt Bert is putting on, and he needs to take measurements of the salt under the trees. It is a sandy clay-loam going down into medium clay, down to weathered rock, sometimes within a metre. The soil is not particularly deep on Bert's property. The Iranians and Californians like to grow them in 2 to 3 m deep soils, sandy clay-loams.

On a local level, there is probably not anyone who can do good soil tests for you, but you could go to United Farms, through United Farmers, CSBP, perhaps. Robinsons Caulfield (?) is used by all the big growers in the eastern states. On the two trips I have made to America, Ben Robinson has been over there as well, he is right up to speed.

(Bert Hayes)
This is the third year we have had nuts. We tried the fresh market, which is straight off the tree with the hulls still on. They have to go into a cool room within one hour of harvest, and they stay in the cool room until they go to the consumer. They are mostly eaten by Lebanese, Iranians, and Middle Easterners. The growers I know in the eastern states said the best bet was to follow up on this avenue. Obviously, when you process the nut, you take the hull off, so you lose weight for a start. You save all your time and processing costs if you sell them fresh. They do need to be graded to make sure the quality is of a fairly good standard. What I did was look in the phone book and looked up businesses that had 'Lebanese' in their names, went and saw the people. They sent me somewhere else, to a food wholesaler, a Lebanese guy who markets a lot of these sort of foods. He was over the moon. Within 48 hours he was on my property. He couldn't believe he could get fresh pistachios in WA. We sold him several hundred kilos this year. He sold them straight away. I got $8 per kilo.

When you consider that when you process the nuts, take the hull off, dry the nuts, you lose about 50% of the weight. So if I am getting $8 a kilo for fresh nuts, I have had no processing costs. That is equivalent to getting about $16 per kilo for processed nuts. So I think this market is valuable to me. I don't know how far it will extend. Next year I will get a lot more nuts, and I will just keep going until I see how far that market goes. You are looking at 7 kg per tree. Rule of thumb is 10 kg off a 10-year-old tree, rising up to about 20 kg on a 20-year-old tree. That is a tree that is irrigated, fertilised and looked after. I have a friend in NSW who has an orchard of similar size to mine. He specialises in fresh nuts. I rang him up, and he said he was quite happy to get $5 per kilo. So I am happy with $8. We have been playing around with processing. We bought a unit for salting and roasting, but the roasting side doesn't appear to be working too well.

There is a lot in how you market them. There are a lot of niche markets. If they are packaged properly with an attractive label, WA grown, they can be sold through wineries, places like that. I think you could get a premium price for them. If you just want to sell them in bulk, just put them in a box and take them down to the market, you would probably get about $5 per kilo.

At the moment we are harvesting by hand. We bought a second-hand tree shaking machine from the eastern states that was supposed to arrive in time for harvest--next year we will still have the mats under the trees. With harvesting, there are very basic ways. You can go around with a bit of poly pipe and whack the nuts off, which is what we did this year. Depending on your timing, you can get 70 to 80% of the nuts off in the first pass. Some people just leave the remaining nuts on. It's a lot of hard work setting all the mats up. You can get a hydraulic tree shaker, or you can get a full-blown harvester which is actually two machines. They drive up and one has a shaker and the other has an auger. That is the way they do it in the big orchards in the US. They can do a tree in a matter of seconds. This is not in our immediate future, as they cost a quarter of a million dollars. In the eastern states, a contractor travels around with it. In WA, there aren't enough growers to do that.

(John Duff)
About the economics of pistachios. According to figures provided by Pocock and others in South Australia, for a hypothetical 20 ha plot. What I wanted to say to you is that it is very much management-dependent. It is dependent on whether you have a source of cheap water. It also depends on being able to incorporate it into an existing farm operation, so you can use the equipment from the farming operation, sheds, etc., and you are on-site to manage the trees and doing something else that is making money. The killer with pistachios is the seven years before you get anything out of them, and ten years before you get 10 kg per tree. The thing I would suggest to people who want to go into pistachios, is that they go into it this way so that they will manage it properly. (end of tape)