Brown team seeks pistachios that can thrive amid change
NIFA funds $3.8-million project to find chill trees
- Trina Kleist via the Department of Plant Sciences details the award of a grant to Pat Brown.
This article was first published by the Department of Plant Sciences.
A multi-state team led by Patrick J. Brown has been awarded nearly $3.8 million over the next four years for a project to improve pistachio production as the industry faces warmer winters and scarcer water.
“We are at this unique point in history where we can do this,” said Brown, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences.
Researchers will be looking for pistachio rootstock and cultivar combinations that have genetic predispositions toward tolerating warmer winters, less water and saltier soil. (Pat J. Brown/UC Davis)
The project aims to ensure the industry can thrive in coming decades despite the challenges faced. Growers are invited to participate in the study, sharing what they already are trying in their own fields. To discuss the possibilities, contact Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 752-4288.
The project includes research to ensure pollination, experiments to calculate irrigation needs amid water shortages, creating tools to improve public breeding programs, developing more efficient harvesting equipment, and economic analyses to ensure future pistachio cultivation is economically rewarding. Researchers hope to offer a guide for growers deciding whether to plant new orchards or remove existing ones.
The tasty, green nuts have blossomed into a $5.2-billion industry in California, thanks to their greater tolerance of dry lands and salty soils. The project aims to further improve their climate resilience by finding a rootstock that can thrive despite growing water scarcity and declining water quality projected over the next half-century. With millions of genetically distinct pistachio trees growing in the state, "we already have out there what may be the industry's next great rootstock," Brown said. "It's probably in some grower's field already. We just have to find it."
Researchers seek to pair that new rootstock with high-yielding scions – the producing part of the tree grafted onto the rootstock – to develop new combinations that can thrive in the different conditions across the state.
Trouble with “boy meets girl”
Pistachio nuts only form when male flowers and female flowers, which grow on different trees, bloom at the same time, allowing for pollination. But the boys and the girls require different amounts of cold winter days to bloom in spring, creating a problem for farmers as the climate warms. (Louise Ferguson/UC Davis)
Pistachios, like many other tree crops, have male and female trees, and they require hundreds of hours of wintertime temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit for the trees to flower in the spring. Wind blows the pollen from male flowers to female flowers, creating nuts.
Complicating the timing: Boy flowers and girl flowers generally require different amounts of winter cold to bloom. After a sufficiently cold winter, boys and girls flower together. But if the winter is warm, most of them will flower at different times, reducing pollination.
That happened in the winter of 2014-15, which saw unusually warm winter temperatures. The following fall, farmers harvested only half their expected crop, losing more than $1 billion, Brown said. Climate change is expected to provoke progressively warmer winters in the future, on average.
An additional complication: The boy scions come from a single variety, or cultivar, and the girl scions come from another single cultivar. "In California part of the problem is that we have been relying on a single male and single female cultivar," Brown explained.
A key part of this project will be to test new scions that can pollinate efficiently despite warmer winters. “We now have additional male and female scions released in the last 10 to 15 years, but we need more information on their chill requirements,” Brown said.
Growing importance of pistachio sector
With nearly 520,000 acres planted in California in 2021, pistachios are the fastest-growing tree nut crop in the state. Growers have doubled their plantings over the past decade, due to pistachios’ drought tolerance and higher gross returns compared to other nuts, experts report. California dominates the industry, growing 99 percent of the nation’s crop and nearly 60 percent of the world's crop, employing people in 47,000 full-time-equivalent jobs and creating $5.2-billion of total economic impact in 2020, according to American Pistachio Growers.
Brown’s team is part of a wider effort at UC Davis to support the sector’s growth and adaptation to climate change. Other department members participating in the project include co-directors Louise Ferguson, a professor of Cooperative Extension, and Richard W. Michelmore, a distinguished professor and director of the UC Davis Genome Center. Also participating are Giulia Marino, an assistant professor of Cooperative Extension; and Grey Monroe, an assistant professor.
Other UC Davis participants include Brittney Goodrich, an assistant professor of Cooperative Extension in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics; and Florent Trouillas, an assistant professor of Cooperative Extension in the Department of Plant Pathology. The project also includes researchers from UC Merced, New Mexico State University and Purdue University.
The four-year project was among nearly $70M in Specialty Crop Research Initiative grants awarded this fall by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The Department of Plant Sciences landed three of the 25 grants.
Read the NIFA grant summary here.