by Nancy Oster
Photography by Steven Brown
Do pistachios really grow in Santa Barbara County? Why haven’t I ever seen a pistachio tree in a neighbor’s yard or observed crows dropping harvested pistachios in my driveway? Where exactly are these Santa Barbara pistachio trees?
Gail Zannon owns Santa Barbara Pistachio Company with her husband, Gene, their sons Josh and Tristan and daughter Melissa. She invited me to their ranch in Cuyama last October during the pistachio harvest.
Cuyama is only about 25 miles north as the crow flies, but the shortest driving distance to the ranch is Highway 33 from Ojai. We start out early. During a spectacular 2½-hour drive back into the mountains behind Ojai, we pass geological rock faces that reflect centuries of upheaval and weathered rock formations that rival those of the Southwest.
When we drop down from the peak and cross back into Santa Barbara County, the terrain flattens out and becomes dusty. As we descend to the high desert at 3,000 feet, we see our first pistachio trees off to the left. The clusters of ripe red fruit are hard to miss and there is no shortage of crows foraging the ripe nuts.
This forgotten corner of Santa Barbara County hosts about 1,000 acres of pistachio trees. Santa Barbara Pistachio Company owns 440 acres. Along the road we pass Sagebrush Annie’s, known for its wines and weekend dinners, and The Place, a café recommended by locals for its homemade pies. That’s the business district.
Within minutes we pull into a parking space in front of a small general store with a large Santa Barbara Pistachio Company sign above the door. For hikers, campers, hunters and truckers coming to Cuyama, the store offers gasoline, freshly roasted pistachio snacks, a clean public restroom and a working telephone (cell phones are not reliable here).
Gail meets us inside, introducing us to Angel and Jennifer, who handle incoming orders that will be filled the same day. All the pistachio roasting, brining and shipping takes place in two large rooms behind the store. Sorting and shelling is done in a building off to the left. This morning they are bagging up the last of the fresh pistachios. Fresh pistachios are only available a couple of weeks a year. These are pistachios right off the tree. A fleshy yellow and red hull covers the moist shell containing a tender nut. Fresh pistachios taste almost fruity in comparison to the dried nuts. Gail sends a limited number of bags of these pistachios to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles farmers markets during the two weeks of harvest.
“Growers must get their pistachios to the processor within 24 hours,” she explains, “to prevent the hull from leaving blotchy brown stains on the shell.” The staining doesn’t affect the quality of the nut, but in the past growers dyed their pistachio shells red to hide the stains.
Gail tells us that five truckloads carrying 40,000 pounds each have already left the field that morning to be hulled and dried by a processor about 70 miles away and then taken to cold storage in Bakersfield. Gail’s son Josh is on the road bringing 12,000 pounds
of newly harvested pistachios back from the processor to fill orders. “Some will be sold raw and some will be hot-air roasted slowly at 160° to give them their characteristic crunch while maintaining the quality of the flavorful oil inside the kernel,” Gail says. “Our flavored nuts are soaked in brine seasoned with organic ingredients before roasting to be sure that the flavors penetrate deep into the kernel. We brine and roast the nuts the same week the order is shipped, for maximum flavor and freshness.”
Tristan arrives and offers to take us out to the orchard. As we drive onto the property, we hear the shaker—a hydraulic mechanical arm that grabs the trunk of the tree and literally shakes the pistachios into a large collector. It takes five seconds to shake a tree. The ground shakes like an earthquake.
These are mostly female trees. Male trees provide pollen but no fruit. One large unruly male tree is needed to pollinate 25 females. Pistachios are wind pollinated, not bee pollinated. Cuyama’s afternoon winds help pollination.
We notice that Tristan has stopped talking and is listening to something … the sound of pistachios dropping from the trees. The wind has kicked up early and he is worried that the harvesters aren’t staying ahead of the wind. Only one day of harvesting left, but a heavy wind can take a toll at this point. “A penny per nut,” he tells us. Now we hear pennies hitting the ground too.
“This is the first really good harvest in four years,” he explains. Normally this high-desert climate is perfect for growing pistachios, but for three years in a row brutal frosts have hit in late April, freezing the blossoms.
Pistachios require periods of heat and cold to flourish. Cuyama has both. Plus, during the winter, freezing temperatures kill off the insects, which gives Cuyama an advantage for growing nuts organically. “And aflatoxin fungus is not a problem here,” Tristan adds.
The biggest pest here is … you guessed it: the crows. “We use scarecrows, automatic firing cannons and balloons with large hawk eyes,” Tristan says. He even hires an extra worker during the most critical six weeks to ride a motorcycle through the fields shooting off a flare-like gun that makes a big bang. Most of the year it’s just Tristan and longtime employee Francisco who work the fields.
When we arrive back at the plant, Josh is forklifting 2,000-pound bags of pistachios off the truck to move them to the walk-in refrigerator/freezer. As needed, each bag will be emptied into a sorter that pulls out the nuts with stained shells. Closed-shell and stained shell nuts will be cracked open and packaged as pistachio kernels or mixed with dried fruits for the company’s Berry Mix.
Josh manages these processes. Gail and Gene handle the marketing. Melissa helps with sales at farmers markets and special events. What started as a family getaway property has grown into a successful family-run business and a source of great satisfaction for the whole Zannon family.
And if you’re wondering, Tristan says pistachio trees will grow in coastal Santa Barbara yards but the nut yield will be smaller than in Cuyama without the optimal chill and heat hours. It takes eight years for a tree to mature, but don’t worry: The crows will let you know when nuts are ready to harvest.
Nancy Oster is a food writer who strongly believes one must write from experience, which is why she had to eat a whole bag of Chile Lemon Pistachios, fix a salad dressed with Santa Barbara Pistachio Oil, snack on some Pistachio Berry Mix and make a batch of pistachio ice cream before completing this article.
This article,, originally appeared in Edible Santa Barbara, Fall 2011. Used by Permission © 2011