At Terra Firma we are pretty proud about how few miles there are between our fields and your forks. Our delivery trucks drive fewer miles a year than lots of commuter Priuses. But the pistachios in your boxes today have logged lots of highway time since they were hanging on trees back in August.
Like all nut crops, Pistachios require lots of expensive infrastructure to harvest and process. They are shaken off the trees with a pair of machines that also catch them before they hit the ground and move them along into bins. The raw nuts are then run through a line of machines that remove the skins (called hulls) and sort out the shells with no nuts inside (blanks). Then, they are moved into silos where they are gently dried with warm air.
We do not own or operate any of the machinery required for harvest, hulling and drying of the pistachios. Our small orchard does not justify the investment. We are lucky, however, to have a neighbor just down the road who does.
But all of this work is only half of what it takes to prepare the pistachios for market.
Most of the pistachios eaten in the world arrive with their shells still on, yet partially open. You might assume that the shells were opened with a machine. In fact, this happens naturally on the tree, just before harvest. But not all the nuts open, or “split”.
Open-shelled pistachios are a convenient snack food; if their shells are closed, not so much. So once the nuts are hulled and dried, they must also be sorted and the “splits” separated. This is done with a series of rollers with thousands of needles on them called a “needle picker”. The needles pick up any nut that is not completely closed — which is why you will get some of those hard-to-open nuts in your bag.
The split nuts are then soaked in a salt brine and roasted at a high temperature. The unsplit nuts are sent to another machine, where they are shelled and sorted to make sure that no shell pieces go into the bag. They are then heat-treated to kill any pathogens.
Traditionally there have been very few pistachio growers in the Sacramento Valley, and most of the processors are in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. We found a farmer less than an hour away who had all the machinery to finish processing our pistachios. But a few years back he decided all the paperwork and potential liability was not worth the small amount he was making on our nuts and other growers.
Now we have to take our pistachios over a hundred miles away — to Fresno — to not one but two different processors: one who needle-picks and roasts them, and another who shells the “non-splits”.
But the biggest problem for us with the pistachios is not how far they have to travel. It’s that we have no idea when we will get them back. Harvest happens in September, but last year we didn’t get any nuts back from the processors until February. The pistachios are kept in cold storage, so it’s not as if they spoil. But it’s frustrating to not have any available for your boxes.
We’re happy this year to have gotten some nuts in time to put in your boxes before the holidays. They’ve been on the road for a few months and are looking for a good home. Enjoy.