Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran's Prized, and Political, Nuts ; It's Harvesttime, and Farmers Hope to Export More Pistachios as They

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran's Prized, and Political, Nuts ; It's Harvesttime, and Farmers Hope to Export More Pistachios as They

Article excerpt

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 beauty."

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 flavored.

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 Pistachios."

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. …

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