Hard-up producers replace wheatfields and vineyards with a more lucrative, drought-resistant crop
They’re calling it green gold, the cash crop that could rescue one of Spain’s poorest regions from decline and depopulation as farmers plough up wheatfields and vineyards and replant them with pistachios.
With farmers earning between 65 and 85 cents for each 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 farm cereals, olives and vines but I’ve abandoned them all in order to grow pistachios,” says Gustavo Adolfo Gálvez, who has a pistachio plantation near Toledo in Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain.
“[They are] a lot more profitable and cheap to produce, and it’s meant a lot more farmers can survive.”
In 1986, the Castilla-La Mancha regional government set up a research project to look for alternative crops its farmers could grow, says José Francisco Couceiro López of the regional institute for agricultural research and development.
“We spent the next 10 years researching alternative crops to the three or four that are already grown here,” Couceiro López says. “Once we moved from theory to practice, we discarded practically all the options aside from pistachio. The pistachio almost magically suits the climate in Castilla-La Mancha. It can withstand the heat and the cold, and it can thrive in poor, shallow soil.”
The next stage, he says, was to educate farmers through a series of courses and open days. In 2013, Couceiro López co-wrote a book on pistachio growing that has become 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, though clearly many are convinced it’s worth the wait, especially as demand continues to outstrip supply.
Last year, Spain harvested 2,800 tonnes of pistachios from 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres), nearly all in La Mancha, but it’s still a newcomer in a market dominated by California, Iran and Turkey, which between them account for nearly 90% of world production.
Pistachios can withstand drought – an important factor in La Mancha – but need plentiful water during the nut-forming stage. In California, severe drought and restrictions on exploiting groundwater already threaten this year’s crop.
In Iran, water shortages cut production by 35% last year, while drought around Gaziantep in southern Turkey, home to 42m pistachio trees, reduced the harvest by 40%.
Although not native to Spain, there have been pistachios in Spain since Roman times, says Fran Figueroa, an ecologist with Arba (the association for the recovery of native woodland), who agrees that they are ideally suited to La Mancha.
“It’s the crop of the future and it needs less water than almonds, for example,” he says.
While Spain is a small player, it competes on quality rather than quantity. The majority of La Mancha’s plantations are organic, which gives their crops added value.
“I don’t want to be chauvinistic but our pistachios are the best on the market,” says Gálvez. “In Iran, the product isn’t anything like as good, nor is it in Turkey. People recognise that and they’re prepared to pay for it.”
Pistachios are mostly eaten as snacks but are also widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as in the production of cakes, sweets, ice-cream and cosmetics.
The popularising of Middle Eastern dishes, through chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, has also increased demand for pistachios in the west.
As people steadily abandon the countryside, España vaciada – emptied-out Spain – has become a political issue that is being exploited by the far-right Vox party. Could pistachios’ green gold entice people back to the land?
“People in my village left for the city because they couldn’t survive as farmers,” says Gálvez. “But now they see that even with only 10 or 15 hectares you can make a decent living.”
“We’re 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 got the benefits. We want to make sure it’s the farmer who benefits from pistachios.”


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