Keenan Farms is headquartered in Avenal (60 miles southwest of Fresno), the very heart of California’s central San Joaquin Valley. This prime location in the center of the state’s major pistachio-producing acreage allows for timely processing during the harvest season, so critical to maintaining quality.
As with any agricultural crop, the most exciting time in the pistachio industry is the annual harvest. This is the much awaited culmination of a year’s worth of hard work by the growers – diligently caring for the trees and protecting the crop as it matures. In fact, the day after harvest ends the grower must begin to think about and plan for next year’s harvest.
While growers anxiously anticipate the fruits of their labor as harvest begins there is still some uncertainty. Unlike most other tree crops, it is extremely difficult to accurately forecast the size of the annual pistachio crop. This is due to many variables such as nut sizing, nut count and actual nut formation along with the alternate bearing nature of pistachios. This means until the nuts are off the trees and processed, pistachio growers can only guess at the total pounds that will be produced.
Timing is Everything…
Pistachios grow in grape-like clusters on the tree and each cluster may have anywhere from thirty to fifty nuts. During the month of April, the winds do their part – pistachios are wind-pollinated with the male trees bearing the pollen and the female trees bearing the nuts. The pistachio kernel then typically develops during the months of June and July; the enlarged nut pushes on the surrounding soft shell to cause a natural split in the shell before the shell hardens. The outer hull which serves as a protective covering for the nut remains intact. As the nut ripens, the hull separates from the shell, and is easily removed when pinched; the hull often turns rosy in color when further ripened. Timing of harvest is critically important to allow for the greatest amount of naturally split nuts; growers closely monitor their fields to determine the best start date and typically begin in late August to early September with harvest lasting approximately six weeks.
The California pistachio industry has perfected the harvesting process. The trees are planted and spaced for ease of access into the orchard by the mechanical harvesting machines. The machine grasps the trunk of the tree and gently shakes the tree allowing the nuts to fall into a catching frame, never touching the ground. The nuts are then transferred to bins and transported to the processing plant. Communication and coordination with the processing plant is ongoing throughout harvest to allow for timely arrivals and minimal waiting once the trucks arrive at the plant. Once it begins, harvest is ongoing 24 hours a day in order to ensure a timely transfer of the crop from the field at its most optimal maturity and ripeness.