They call it green gold, the cash crop that could save one of Spain’s poorest regions from decline and depopulation as farmers plow wheat fields and vineyards and replant them with pistachios.
With farmers earning 65-85 cents for every kilo of olives they produce, and around 65 cents for grapes, pistachios, which fetch €6-8 a kilo, are in a different league.
“I used to grow cereals, olives and vines, but I gave them all up to grow pistachios,” says Gustavo Adolfo Gálvez, who owns a pistachio plantation near Toledo in Castile-La Mancha, in central Spain.
“[They are] much more profitable and cheap to produce, and that means many more farmers can survive.
In 1986, the regional government of Castilla-La Mancha set up a research project to research alternative crops that its farmers could grow, says José Francisco Couceiro López of the regional agricultural research and development institute.
“We spent the next 10 years looking for alternative crops to the three or four that are already grown here,” explains Couceiro López. “Once we moved from theory to practice, we ruled out virtually every option except pistachio. The pistachio adapts almost by magic to the climate of Castilla-La Mancha. It can withstand heat and cold, and it can thrive in poor, shallow soil.
The next step, he says, was to educate farmers through a series of courses and open houses. In 2013, Couceiro López co-wrote a book on pistachio cultivation that became a bestseller in Spain and Latin America. “The biggest handicap is that farmers who plant pistachios have to wait at least seven years before their first decent harvest,” he says, although many are clearly convinced that it is worth the wait, especially since demand continues to exceed supply.
Spain harvested 2,800 tonnes of pistachios from 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) last year, almost all of it in the English Channel, but it’s still a relative newcomer to a market dominated by California, Iran and Turkey, which together account for almost 90% of world production. .
Pistachios can withstand drought – an important factor in La Mancha – but need plenty of water during the nut formation phase. In California, severe drought and restrictions on groundwater development are already threatening this year’s harvest.
In Iran, water shortages reduced production by 35% last year, while drought around Gaziantep in southern Turkey, home to 42m of pistachio trees, reduced the harvest by 40%.
Although they are not native to Spain, there have been pistachios in Spain since Roman times, says Fran Figueroa, ecologist at Arba (the association for the recovery of native forests), who agrees that they are suitable perfectly in La Mancha.
“It’s the crop of the future and it needs less water than almonds, for example,” he says.
Although Spain is a small player, it competes on quality rather than quantity. The majority of La Mancha’s plantations are organic, which adds value to their crops.
“I don’t want to be chauvinistic, but our pistachios are the best on the market,” says Gálvez. “In Iran, the product is not as good, nor in Turkey. People recognize it and they are willing to pay for it.
Pistachios are mainly eaten as snacks, but are also widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as in the production of cakes, sweets, ice creams and cosmetics.
The popularization of Middle Eastern dishes, thanks to chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, has also increased the demand for pistachios in the west.
As people gradually abandon the campaign, Espana vaciada – Spain emptied – has become a political stake exploited by the far-right Vox party. Could the green gold of pistachios inspire people to return to the land?
“People from my village left for the city because they couldn’t survive as farmers,” says Gálvez. “But now they see that even with just 10 or 15 hectares you can make a decent living.”
“We are determined to make sure we don’t make the same mistake we made with wine, where we left the marketing to others and we farmers never benefited. We want to make sure that it is the farmer who benefits from the pistachios. »