Persian exports in a nutshell
Iran's prized, and political, nuts --It's harvesttime, and
farmers hope to export more pistachios as they compete against the US.
By Scott Peterson
Christian Science Monitor
December 2, 1999
On a visit to the United States in the early 1980s, Iranian farmer Falli
Karbassian remembers seeing a billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard in California.
It read: " 'Would you rather buy pistachios from this?' and there
was a picture of a little man leading a camel through the desert."
she says. " 'Or from this?' and there was a picture of a California
There are only two places in the world where large commercial orchards
of pistachio nuts are grown: Iran's humidity-free southeast and in the
US, primarily in California. This fact has added another ingredient to
troubled relations between the two countries, as farmers battle to capture
the growing market for the green nuts.
Since the 1980s, American sanctions against Iran and protective tariffs
have enabled US growers to corner the domestic US market for their younger
industry, and so be strong enough to take on Iranian export of the nuts
- which are cheaper, larger, and considered by many to be more desirably
But the combative relationship has also helped create new overseas
markets for both sides, and has created an odd symbiosis. Several big California
growers are Iranian families - some even have farms in Iran, too, and so
sell both styles of pistachios.
Farmers in Iran say they have improved their crops with technical reports
written by US experts, and some say they would welcome American investment
in processing facilities and orchards.
Cooperation was close before the Islamic revolution in 1979. "When
I was a kid, US growers would come," says Ms. Karbassian, who represents
her family's fifth generation of pioneer pistachio farmers and lives in
Tehran. "They took different samples and varieties and tried to match
Iranian nuts. But the same seed grows differently there."
Bringing in between $500 million and $600 million a year, pistachios
are so important to Iran that a special committee reports directly to the
president. They are Iran's third-largest export after oil and carpets.
Pistachios are important locally also. The most famous son from Rafsanjan,
a town in the midst of pistachio country, is former president Hashemi Rafsanjani
- scion on a wealthy local family who some describe at the "King of
Yet regardless of the political situation, more snackers are always
being found. Russia ate hardly a single nut six years ago and now imports
15,000 tons a year. In just five years Spain has jumped to 11,000 tons.
Europe overall now has an annual taste for 90,000 tons.
And even though Israel and Iran are sworn enemies, Israelis gobble
up Iranian pistachios that have been channeled through Turkey and are marked
as produce from there.
All this pistachio popularity comes from humble beginnings. "It
started with faith," says Iranian farmer Mehdi Agah, describing his
father's efforts eight decades ago to convince locals in Kerman to plant
seeds that would not bear nuts for eight to 10 years.
In those days, pistachios graced delicacy trays only in czarist Russia.
The first bags exported to the West were sold to Syrian Christians in New
York. For decades, sales in the US East Coast propelled Iranian orchards.
"This is what makes the taste," says Mansour Moin, an Iranian
farmer for 20 years, as he kicks at the soil in one of his best orchards
near Rafsanjan. "It's not clay; it's sandy earth."
Mr. Moin inspects the crinkly green pistachio leaves that are ready
to drop off in the late autumn. the harvest is finished for the year, and
he is beginning to replace his flood watering system with much more efficient
- and expensive - drip irrigation that will save 70 percent of the precious
"If we didn't have a water problem, all of Iran would go to pistachios,"
he says with a smile.
Yet after a bumper year last year, Iran's harvest is down 85 percent;
the American crop is down some 40 percent, too, after two good years. And
although Iran exports twice as many nuts as the US, deliveries to Europe
were halted in 1997 because of stringent European Commission (EC) regulations
about levels of toxic aflatoxin, which comes from mold.
The the Fresno-based California Pistachio Commission has spent nearly
$2 million in advertising campaigns to get its foot in the door of the
Europe market during Iran's absence, but Mr. Agah, one of the Iranian farmers,
says that such efforts have backfired before: US growers have opened new
markets that were later overwhelmed by Iran's cheaper nuts.
"Four years ago I was in China, and I saw American nuts everywhere,"
he says. "Now 80 percent of pistachios sold to China are from Iran.
Pistachios have great potential."
Indeed, restrictions have already eased on Iranian exports to Europe,
as a Swiss trade journal has noted that EC teams to Iran have found "truly
great strides in hygienic processing."
As Washington and Tehran eye the possibility of renewing ties, some
US farmers are anxious. "No marketing program that can be conceived
will be able to stem the negative impact of millions of pounds of low-quality,
low-price foreign pistachios if they should be dumped in the US,"
the California commission warns in an annual report. "Right now we
are safe ... but keep reading the newspapers."
Assertions that Iranian nuts are "low quality," however,
are not born out elsewhere in the report. A study by the California commission
of Israelis - among the heaviest pistachio consumers - found that "the
research, while very detailed, did not provide marketing suggestions other
than changing the roast to make California pistachios taste more like Iranian."