Are pistachios the new ‘green gold’ in Spain?
Farmers in the Madrid region have been rushing to plant the fruit tree, which can yield up to €6,000 in just one hectare
Álvaro Díez is not a typical young Spaniard. While most of his generation has left their hometowns in the countryside to look for work in the city, he decided to go down the opposite path. The 28-year-old left his job at a prestigious law firm in Madrid and moved to Colmenar de Oreja, a town with 7,500 inhabitants that sits 50 kilometers from the Spanish capital, to start an agriculture business: Pistachios of Madrid. On his farm, located on a terraced field of the Tagus River, very close to Aranjuez, there is an endless sea of pistachio trees. The still flimsy trunks of the tree, which originated in the Middle East, can be seen as far as the horizon. The plantation has more than 25 hectares of pistachio trees, a crop that has increased by 30% in the last five years in the Madrid region, thanks to its high profitability. Every hectare can yield up to €6,000.
The last owners of the Las Marismas farm used to grow grains. When the Díez family acquired the land, they realized that this wouldn’t turn a profit and looked for an alternative. In 2015, they decided on the pistachio and planted 11 hectares of the tree, which produces edible seeds that are culinary – not botanical – nuts. Three years later, they filled the entire property with the ancient tree. “When we did it there were very few people who were planting them [pistachio trees]. We consulted with researchers and they assured us that they met the requirements,” says Díez.
Among the experts that they contacted were researchers from the Madrid Institute for Rural and Food Development (Imidra), who introduced the pistachio to the region in 1999 in the experimental farm La Isla, in Arganda del Rey. Two decades later, they continue to research and share their studies.
The pistachio is a tree that comes from desert areas, as such it requires environmental conditions that are found in very few regions on the planet. “It [the pistachio tree] needs a cold winter, a very hot summer, and late frosts. It adapts very well to dry conditions, but it does much better with a small amount of water,” says Jesús Alegre, coordinator of the pistachio project at Imidra. According to Alegre, the best place to plant the crop in Madrid is the southeastern area of the region. Like all fruit trees, the pistachio is a grafted tree. Given there is still not a lot of grafting expertise in Spain, Diéz offers this service to other farmers. He says that Pistachios of Madrid performs the most pistachio grafts in Spain. The company employs 25 people in high season during the summer months – fewer than Díez needs on his farm.
Slow growth cycle
The pistachio tree blooms in April and the fruit matures in September. Only a couple of people are needed for the harvest, because the fruit is collected in a similar way to olives, using electric harvesters and canvas to collect the fallen fruit. Pistachios, however, have a slow growth cycle. “There is a return on investment by the sixth year, but there is not a positive balance until the tenth,” says Díez, who had his first harvest last year. Despite this, many producers are still interested in growing pistachio trees as a way to increase the value of their land. Díez points out that when he started planting pistachio trees, there were just 70 hectares of the crop in the entire region. Today that number has risen tenfold, and this represents just a small portion of the 30,000 hectares of pistachio trees that are planted across the country. Most of the trees are found in the central region of Castilla-La Mancha, which introduced them in the 1980s.
The first person to bring the pistachio to the Madrid region was José Luis Ocaña, who is now 84 years old. In 2001, he decided to plant 2.5 hectares in Tielmes, a town in the southeast of the region. “I saw it [pistachio trees] in a magazine and decided to try it out. It was a gamble, because they didn’t exist back then. They called me the ‘the crazy pistachio guy’,” he says. A few years later, he doubled the number of hectares. Luis Ocaña recognizes that the pistachios are very profitable, but advises caution. “For many it’s the new ‘green gold,’ but it’s too early to celebrate,” he says. The pistachio, nevertheless, has become the fifth-biggest fruit crop in the region.
Pistachio trees are planted six meters apart. Every hectare fits 238 trees, of which 211 are females. The male trees must pollinate their flowers via the wind, so there must be one male tree for every eight to 12 females. Every hectare produces between 600 and 1,000 kilos of pistachios, double if the ground is irrigated. Producers receive between €4.5 and €5.5 for every kilo, and €10.5 if the variety is organic. But the final market price can reach as much as €30 a kilo. Madrid produces around 450 tons of pistachios, barely 5% of the national product. These pistachios are imported throughout Europe, where they are highly valued. Spain, however, consumes lower quality pistachios that come from the United States and Iran, which are the world leaders in the pistachio industry. Experts say there is enough business for at least two more decades.
“Spain needs another 100,000 hectares of pistachios. With the current growth rate, they’ll be planted in the next eight years,” says Díez. The crop adapts well to extreme climate, meaning that it can also grow in inland regions such as Extremadura, Castile y León and Castile-La Mancha, which has 80% of Spain’s pistachio plantations. The pistachio, however, has failed to flourish in the northeastern region of Catalonia. The tree was introduced in the 1970s, but did not adapt well to the high humidity.
To ensure Madrid farmers are not faced with similar problems, the Imidra carries out risk assessments, tests organic fertilizers and new varieties of pistachio (up to seven), and selects and improves the quality of grafts. What’s more, they offer courses to all producers that are interested in growing pistachio trees. Luis Ocaña, who led the way for other farmers, says: “If I could travel back in time, I’d plant them again.” Now nobody calls him crazy.
Culinary use of pistachios
Middle Eastern recipes have used pistachios for millennia. Indeed it was the Arab people who introduced the fruit to Spain. But it is only in recent years that its consumption has skyrocketed. Samuel Serrano, a pastry chef at La Barra Dulce in the Madrid neighborhood of Lavapiés, says the use of pistachios is becoming increasingly common. “It’s a trend,” he says. Serrano includes pistachios in desserts like pistachio and guava cake, and explains that other chefs use it as garnish for meat dishes.
Dani García, whose self-named restaurant has three Michelin stars, has included pistachios in his cherry gazpacho since 1998. The culinary nut also features in his Caesar salad and the dessert Frescor Andalusí, which is made from orange blossom ice cream and pistachio cream.
But Julio Miralles, the chef of Zalacaín in the Madrid neighborhood of Castellana, doesn’t agree that pistachios are being used more now than before. “We use them to make pistachio ice cream, which is getting harder and harder to find, because the fruit is very expensive and therefore [the ice cream] isn’t profitable,” he says.
Nutritionist Elena Moreno, from the FEMM plastic surgery clinic, says that the pistachio is one of dried fruits with the most protein. “It helps us control weight, fights stress, promotes balanced cholesterol levels and good cardiovascular health,” she explains. Moreno recommends eating 30 grams a day, in other words 49 pistachios.