Pistachio Trees as Seen From the County Road
In an ever increasing wild and woolly cattle market, I decided that the V6 Ranch needed to diversify. A new venture might help level out some of the heart stopping, grab your ass price swings that usually get their start in the cattle futures market. These thrillers never show up at the grocery store as all the gyrations are mostly hidden from public view. At the slaughterhouse level, $1,000 to $2,000 markup on each head of cattle harvested has made the greedy group that controls 85 percent of all the cattle slaughtered in the U.S. satisfied. You may think that they might want to share the wealth with we producers, but then you would be wrong. This miscarriage of justice takes me five years at the ranching level to do what these bandits do in a week. Next, the quartered carcasses are sent on to a plant that cuts the carcass into ever smaller parts, put in boxes, and delivered to your local supermarket where the price per pound is raised again to a decibel level of customer grumbling, that the store manager recognizes as “that’s just about all we can charge this week.”
It’s the year 2015 and I’ve just become a “wet behind the ears” 80 year old trying to make sense out of a nonsensical business that I just can’t stop loving, when a farm magazine I’m reading had an article about the wonders of growing Pistachios. The article tells me that Pistachios native land is the Mediterranean area whose climate is very similar to ours. Next Pistachios are drought tolerant and can live 100 productive years and will stand hot and cold weather. But they do have one drawback. It seems that they take 6 to 7 years to produce their first nuts and are 10 years old before they are in full production. Not to worry Jack, you’ll only be 10 years older and wiser and ready to take the first wheelbarrow load of diversified greenbacks to the bank.
I just turned 86 this past September and my safe way to diversify by growing Pistachios has already made me shout out “Is this trip necessary?” Well Jack, I don’t know but we’re going forward anyway. I didn’t know that diversifying would be such an expensive journey, “come on you weak heart times are a wasting.”
Let me take you all back to the beginning. It’s September 2015 and at the south end of the ranch, there is a 100-acre piece of ex-dry farming ground. It’s flat and gently rolling. All it needed was to drill a well where I was pretty certain I would find water but to make certain I hired a guy that guaranteed he would find water. With his gadget, he mapped out the bottom of the aquifer beneath my feet so all you had to do was pick all the low points and you would find water. Okay, Jack get this guy and your well driller, and let’s find some water. Wouldn’t you know it, the guy with his water discovery gadget who said he guaranteed to find water said “I didn’t guarantee how much and because there is a minuscule amount at the bottom of the hole you owe me.” This was to be one of many checks that I would write to keep my steep learning curve boat afloat. I still needed water before I bought one tree. As I watched the tail lights of my departing water guru, I spotted my neighbors well. That was a good one so l told the well driller “follow me” and in no time I had the driller looking at a small “x” that I had scribed with the toe of my shoe. I said, “this is where the water is.” Late the next afternoon I stopped by the well rig. I was greeted by a big guy with a toothy grin that before I could ask he said, “Here’s the water you were looking for. There are more than 100 gallons per minute and if you stay approximately near the county road to the south you’ll find more.”
With that good news, it was time to get the next guy to install the irrigation system which would use 13,600, a number that will become forever etched in my brain. Why, you ask? Because 16 feet was the length of P.V.C. pipe between each tree that when laid out end to end I would need to buy 41.2 miles of pipe and remember the 13,600 drip emitters you need, one for each tree. I wrote another check. Now it’s time to call P.G.& E. to hook up my irrigation pump to their electrical grid but first write another check because they won’t start, till you pay for the hookup.
Continuing to read the pamphlet, I felt like some guy sitting in the pilot’s seat of a Piper Cub reading the checklist before take-off knowing that he had never flown before. Get over it Jack because it was time to hire the next cog in the Pistachio wheel. This would be the layout man who would make 136 marks on the ground forming a mosaic that would contain 136 trees per acre times 100 acres to equal 13,600 trees. I wrote another check. Everything’s going to be okay Jack, remember the importance of being diversified so go ahead and order the trees because we want to get them planted in early March before they come out of dormancy. Let’s see Mr.Nurseryman, you want me to pay $7.00 for that tiny little tree that I can hold between my thumb and forefinger? “Yup.” Let’s see 13,600 times 7 equals $95,200. I wrote another check. Suddenly I had this overwhelming feeling like the day I said “I do” that there will be no turning back and you also have 13,600 mouths to feed in sickness and in health forever after.
The trees are all in the ground now. A big planting crew did it in two days and with the last tree in the ground, the labor contractor said $.50 per tree times 13,600. I wrote another check. The trees are getting their first drink of water and for the next months of spring and into summer things are doing well according to all the “crash course” literature I’ve been reading. But my literature didn’t tell me how many furry critters liked Pistachios. Some liked the roots, some liked the leaves and some liked the bark.
The San Joaquin Valley produces about 80% of the world’s supply of this nut and because of the valley’s long history of tilling the soil and then planting a multitude of different crops that have needed evermore sprays, fertilizers, and other man-made cures and also didn’t need any wildlife that might harm their crops. That says to me in my nature-made enclave of virgin soil free from all these man-made problems I should be able to grow Pistachios organically because of my pristine location. Well, I forgot that yes the San Joaquin Valley farmers had pretty well wiped out almost all of the critters that walked around on all fours and might harm a food crop. What soon became apparent was that my cute little pistachio trees were about ready to be taste-tested by Gophers and did they like their roots, why they told all their friends from near and far that there was a new treat to eat and come they did. It was almost scary to look at a perfectly healthy tree one day but on the second day there was a wilted look and the third day leaves were turning brown and on day four I could easily pull out a dead seven dollar tree minus its roots. I had to do something. So I wrote another check. I needed Gopher traps, Gopher bait, and a Gopher machine that when pulled behind a tractor would make a tunnel for the bait to be deposited into. This worked pretty well for a while but the Gophers kept coming, they were relentless.
Quite by chance I met a fellow that grew Oranges in the Sierra Nevada foothills and he was plagued with Gophers until he rented a trencher that would dig a trench six inches wide and three feet deep were upon he filled the ditch with one inch “leach rock” making an underground wall to stop his Gopher invasion. Well if it worked for him I decided that this was my answer because as fast as I reduced their population to tolerable levels a new army of these bucked tooth hordes would make a full on frontal attack. So I wrote another check. Now I have my own Great Wall for Gopher Rebuff which has proven to be quite successful.
A sigh of relief, another check written. But the next day the wild hogs, of which there are many, decided to make their own assault on my trees. These guys and gals didn’t want my trees but did want the moist ground created by my drip irrigation system around the trees where worms and bugs could be found. I had what is called a “hog wire” fence around the entire orchard but it was no match for a hog that was raised under conditions that would build a tenacious character, a strong will to live, and a snout to lift any hog wire fence. Jack get ready to write another check as you need to buy a mile or so of one half inch “guy wire cable” which the pigs can’t root under. Another Berlin Wall has been erected to stop all of the hogs from entering. Naturally, I wrote another check.
Any notion that I might have heard the all clear bell clang and the invaders were now in retreat only lasted a year because the next summer after planting it was time to graft all the trees with fruit wood that would become the nut bearing part of a Pistachio tree. Jack did you forget to write a check to pay all the help that grafted 13,600 trees? It wasn’t but a month and the newly grafted trees started to show off their new limbs with a few green and vigorous leaves hanging on. So here was my future, a time when I would start depositing checks, from the sale of my Pistachio crop. Not so fast Jack remember your hog wire fence with cable to keep the hogs out well what about the deer that are easily scaling your four foot high fence at night? They were nipping off your grafted precious limbs, one bite per tree, this would set you back one year as a good share of the tree had to be re-grafted. So plan on writing a check next year and for this year write one for making the fence around the orchard eight feet tall to keep the deer out. So, I wrote another check.
Time out, I want to take a minute to explain why I thought I wouldn’t need an eight foot high fence. When the State of California outlawed the taking of Mountain Lions our deer population over the course of several years diminished, I thought to almost zero as I rarely ever saw one, but apparently there were still plenty enough to de-graft most of my trees.
Let’s see, I’ve built an underground wall to keep the Gophers out, a cable wall to keep the hogs out and an eight high wall to keep the deer out. When I started this venture I was 80 years old and several years have come and gone but in spite of all my travails I still feel that I’m a gamer, not totally out of the picture. I enjoy each day as they come. That said, this past year has certainly been one of those look at your whole card years, because Mother Nature decided that a second year of drought in the extreme would see just how good and adaptable an Orchardist I have become.
What four legged critter was left that would cause me to drag out my now tattered checkbook. Our California Ground Squirrel who has, in all the growing years of my Pistachio adventure, not been a problem. But this year of 2021 he almost brought my orchard to its knees. Seems as though and because of the drought Mr. Squirrel needed a drink of water and something to eat and what better place than my orchard. All Squirrel had to do was to bite into one of my one quarter inch plastic drip tubes for a drink then rise up from a heavy stand of grass and weeds that I left trying to keep soil temperatures down to save water. Nice idea Jack but unbeknownst to you, when the irrigation man had finished irrigating for the day, Mr. Squirrel would quickly scamper up a Pistachio tree and then start to remove all the nice tender bark for his dinner. If he was extra hungry and ate all the way around the tree and the Cambium layer, which was a trees two lane road to move nutrients up and down, plenty of sunlight and drying days would quickly sound the death bell for my trees. It was a catastrophe about to happen and I had to stop it! Now with a determined effort and many checks written Squirrel was last seen knocking on Saint Peter’s gate.
It’s not over yet for it was time to buy gallons upon gallons of a black tarry substance called Tree Seal and some paint brushes to cover all the scars. So write another check Jack and you’ve only got two more years to go till payday and maybe by then there could be just waiting over the horizon, a new way to diversify without the Roller Coaster ride. And what fun would that be?