The festival is small, but cute. I am in Newberry Springs, California, about twenty minutes east of Barstow along Interstate 40, on a crisp November morning, joining literally thousands (not at one time) of locals and visitors honoring the little green nut, the pistachio. Here in California’s high desert (high referring to the elevation, significantly higher than that of the “low” desert surrounding Palm Springs), pistachios are one of the key crops in a region that depends on farming to survive. And today, the community honors that heritage.
The festival is cute, and while small, is much larger than one would expect from an unincorporated town that is smaller than the population of my high school. Crafts, food vendors, farmers (of course), and community organizations join an eclectic list of activities that ranges from a kickball tournament to mock gun fights. It is fun seeing pretty much the entire region coming together, with visitors from as far as Los Angeles, more than two hours away.
October is harvest season for the pistachio, hence the timing of the festival. I buy pistachios in a few forms, including pistachio fudge, and make an effort to support local farmers when doing so. However, I am conscious that pistachios are not without controversy.
Let me get my personal bias out there. I am a coastal Californian liberal Jewish atheist. I believe – and the science backs me up – that water is a huge issue in a state suffering from more than a decade of severe drought, with no end in sight. Reservoirs all over the American southwest are drying up, aquifers are being emptied faster than they are being replenished by rain, and it looks only to get worse in the short term. Pistachios are one of the crops grown here in California that is most water intensive, and there is debate – legitimate debate – as to whether such high water crops are in the state’s best interests in both the near term and longer future. I tend to be on the side of “get rid of the water intensive crops altogether,” so it is important for me to be here, to speak with local farmers, and to fill in that side of my knowledge gap. (In today’s society, such conversations are hard to have, as most issues seem to be totally polarized, this one included. But that is why it is important to do, to see if there is common ground that can pave the way for sensible solutions.)
There are some things that are indisputable. First, pistachios are a water heavy crop. According to the Water Footprint Network, nuts like pistachios and almonds (another major crop here in California) take more than 1,300 gallons of water per pound of nut. To give some perspective, citrus takes an average of 65 or so gallons per pound of fruit, and stone fruits about 150. That comes out to more than a gallon per pistachio. Second, pistachio farming is a big industry for the state. The American Pistachio Growers Association estimates that the industry provides about $5.2 billion to California’s economy, and directly and indirectly supports more than 47,000 jobs. Each of these people has a story, and many have families to support. Those people matter, and their livelihoods are important. Finally, at least here in Newberry Springs, the farms use the local aquifer, and do not drain water from Lake Mead and the other major reservoirs. So images of those levels plummeting are not a result of these local farmers, although wells accessing the aquifer have to be drilled significantly deeper than in decades past due to declining levels there.
Raymond Ward, Jr. is, as he puts it, a well driller with a pistachio farm. His main job is to drill wells for local access to the aquifers, and on the side he has a thirty acre pistachio farm that was started by his grandfather in the mid-1980s, when pistachio farms helped revitalize an area struggling from prior collapses in the mining and oil industries. He also sits on the Newberry Springs Chamber of Commerce, who have sponsored my trip out. We meet first for breakfast and then for a tour of his farm to give me the “other” side of the pistachio story.
Ray and I probably disagree about more than we agree when it comes to politics and the state of both California and the world as a whole. But we sit and talk, civilly, about our respective views, an opportunity for which I am incredibly grateful. He believes that water availability is more cyclical, and over time will work itself out. As a well driller, he assures me that there is plenty of water in the local aquifer, more than enough to sustain the industry in the long term. He does, however, acknowledge the near term (at least) water shortage issues in the state. We have found some common ground to start from.
As we walk through the farm, Ray discusses some of the specifics of pistachio farming. His is an older farm, with trees that took longer to start producing (fifteen or so years) than newer trees (roughly five years). His trees average about one hundred pounds of pistachios each per year. They are watered via misting spray hoses from water pumped from his well, with water usage skewing heavily as harvest gets closer and much less during the “off-season.” The nuts are harvested either by hand or using a vehicle that shakes the nuts loose from the tree and catches them in a huge net. From here, the husks (red in color and beautiful, by the way) are peeled away, and the resulting nut is dried and roasted. Quality varies drastically, and his payments vary based on that.
Our conversation wanders as we search for more common ground. After about an hour, we find it. He and I disagree on whether or not water heavy crops like nuts and grasses (alfalfa being chief among those) are a major cause of the declining water levels in the state. However, we do agree that just increasing prices on water is not a sustainable solution, as all it does is put small farms like his out of business, while the big agricultural conglomerates can just afford to pay (and pass those costs along to consumers). He suggests having the state subsidize all water intensive crop farmers to not farm for a period of three to five years. (Water could be used at a very small level to keep trees alive, but not enough that they would produce nuts.) If that makes a difference in the water levels both in the aquifers and in the reservoirs, we know it is a large part of the problem. If not, we know it isn’t. He assures me that most farmers he knows would gladly change to another crop (albeit one that would likely have a smaller profit margin) if they knew they were part of the problem; right now most probably agree with Ray that they are not.
We shake hands and part ways, having come to what seems a decent place in our conversation. Here is hoping that the powers that be in the state (and the larger region) can likewise come to a sensible midpoint when dealing with an issue that is central to the future of a drought stricken area.
Pistachios safely ensconced in the trunk of my car, I head back toward Los Angeles, armed with a greater understanding of both the industry and the people who depend on it. Am I convinced that pistachio farming is sustainable in California? Not in the least. But am I open to a statewide study on it? Yes. And am I more sympathetic to the farmers who are trying to make a life growing things I enjoy eating? Absolutely.
In the meantime, I am grateful for the chance to come to Newberry Springs and celebrate the pistachio, to join with a warm and welcoming community honoring an industry that allows it to sustain.
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