Merced County Cooperative Extension
Merced County Cooperative Extension
Merced County Cooperative Extension
University of California
Merced County Cooperative Extension

NIFA funds $3.8 million project to find climate-resilient pistachio trees

With nearly 520,000 acres planted in California in 2021, pistachios are the fastest-growing tree nut crop in the state. California dominates the pistachio industry, growing 99 percent of the nation's crop and nearly 60 percent of the world's crop. Photo by Evett Kilmartin

Growers invited to participate in study by sharing their experiences

A multi-state team led by Patrick J. Brown has been awarded nearly $3.8 million over the next four years for a project to improve pistachio production as the industry faces warmer winters and scarcer water.

“We are at this unique point in history where we can do this,” said Brown, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences.

The project aims to ensure the industry can thrive in coming decades despite the challenges faced. Growers are invited to participate in the study, sharing what they already are trying in their own fields or supporting any aspect of the project. To discuss the possibilities, contact Brown at pjbrown@ucdavis.edu or (530) 752-4288.

The project includes research to ensure pollination, experiments to calculate irrigation needs amid water shortages, creating tools to improve public breeding programs, developing more efficient harvesting equipment, and economic analyses to ensure future pistachio cultivation is economically rewarding. Researchers hope to offer a guide for growers deciding whether to plant new orchards or remove existing ones.

“The success of California's pistachio industry, which is the top producer of the nuts in the world, has always relied on a strong collaboration between UC researchers and pistachio growers,” said project participant Florent Trouillas, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Davis Department of Plant Pathology. “Research efforts must continue to address enduring and new challenges, improve sustainability and ensure the profitability of pistachio farming.”

Researchers will be looking for pistachio rootstock and cultivar combinations that have genetic predispositions toward tolerating warmer winters, less water and saltier soil. Photo by Pat J. Brown, UC Davis

The tasty, green nuts have blossomed into a $5.2-billion industry in California, thanks to their greater tolerance of dry lands and salty soils. The project aims to further improve their climate resilience by finding a rootstock that can thrive despite growing water scarcity and declining water quality projected over the next half-century. With millions of genetically distinct pistachio trees growing in the state, "we already have out there what may be the industry's next great rootstock," Brown said. "It's probably in some grower's field already. We just have to find it."

Researchers seek to pair that new rootstock with high-yielding scions – the producing part of the tree grafted onto the rootstock – to develop new combinations that can thrive in the different conditions across the state.

Trouble with “boy meets girl”

Pistachios, like many other tree crops, have male and female trees, and they require hundreds of hours of wintertime temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit for the trees to flower in the spring. Wind blows the pollen from male flowers to female flowers, creating nuts.

Complicating the timing: Boy flowers and girl flowers generally require different amounts of winter cold to bloom. After a sufficiently cold winter, boys and girls flower together. But if the winter is warm, most of them will flower at different times, reducing pollination.

That happened in the winter of 2014-15, which saw unusually warm winter temperatures. The following fall, farmers harvested only half their expected crop, losing more than $1 billion, Brown said. Climate change is expected to provoke progressively warmer winters in the future, on average.

Male flowers and female flowers on pistachio trees generally require different amounts of winter cold to bloom. If the winter is warm, most of them will flower at different times, reducing pollination. Photo by Louise Ferguson, UC Davis

An additional complication: The boy scions come from a single variety, or cultivar, and the girl scions come from another single cultivar. "In California part of the problem is that we have been relying on a single male and single female cultivar," Brown explained.

A key part of this project will be to test new scions that can pollinate efficiently despite warmer winters. “We now have additional male and female scions released in the last 10 to 15 years, but we need more information on their chill requirements,” Brown said.

Growing importance of pistachio sector

With nearly 520,000 acres planted in California in 2021, pistachios are the fastest-growing tree nut crop in the state. Growers have doubled their plantings over the past decade, due to pistachios' drought tolerance and higher gross returns compared to other nuts, experts report. California dominates the industry, growing 99 percent of the nation's crop and nearly 60 percent of the world's crop, employing people in 47,000 full-time-equivalent jobs and creating $5.2-billion of total economic impact in 2020, according to American Pistachio Growers.

Brown's team is part of a wider effort at UC Davis to support the sector's growth and adaptation to climate change. Other department members participating in the project include co-directors Louise Ferguson, a UC Cooperative Extension pomologist, and Richard W. Michelmore, a distinguished professor and director of the UC Davis Genome Center. Also participating are Giulia Marino, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist; and Grey Monroe, an assistant professor.

Other UC Davis participants include Trouillas and Brittney Goodrich, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. The project also includes researchers from UC Merced, New Mexico State University and Purdue University.

The four-year project was among nearly $70 million in Specialty Crop Research Initiative grants awarded this fall by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The Department of Plant Sciences landed three of the 25 grants.

Read the NIFA grant summary.

Posted on Friday, December 16, 2022 at 9:42 AM
  • Author: Trina Kleist, UC Davis
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Food

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