Californian farmers waged ‘War’ on Iranian pistachios and won

Bourse and Bazaar | Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: The great pistachio war began—unintentionally—fifty years ago. In 1971, the United States changed its tax codes to eliminate loopholes exploited by almond and citrus farmers, “setting off a rush to plant pistachios,” which had been left out of the new rules. One year later, the Shah of Iran mandated that “small packets of protein-rich pistachios be given to schoolchildren as part of a free breakfast program,” reducing Iran’s exports of the nut. Just as American pistachios farms began to “come into serious production,” cultivating trees bred from Iranian an cutting, Iran was thrust into its 1979 revolution.

Eager to win marketshare first in the US and then abroad, Californian pistachio farmers considered the chaotic situation in Iran to be “opportune.” Among them were Stewart and Lynda Resnick, an entrepreneurial couple who had stumbled into pistachio farming as a safe haven from inflation and taxes. But as journalist Yasha Levine and filmmaker Roman Wernham detail in a forthcoming documentary entitled Pistachio Wars, the “shrewd” Resnicks, “quickly realized that they there was an opportunity” to be seized in growing the humble pistachio.

The documentary, which just surpassed its initial fundraising goal on Kickstarter, explains how, more than anyone else, the Resnicks have been responsible for both making the pistachio into a ubiquitous snack food in the US while also eating away at Iran’s global marketshare. They have become billionaires in the process.

The Resnicks’ enterprise, The Wonderful Company, is the largest producer of pistachios in the US with annual revenue of around USD 4 billion. The company also produces POM Wonderful, a pomegranate juice, and Fiji Water, a luxury spring water, among other food and beverage products.

Levine first learned of the Resnicks while reporting in what he calls, “Oligarch Valley,” a 450 stretch of irrigated farmland bounded by Silicon Valley in the north and Los Angeles in the south. As the name suggests, Oligarch Valley is home to some of the largest and most lucrative agricultural operations in the US, including 90 percent of the country’s pistachio production. The California pistachio crop was valued at USD 3.6 billion this year.

For Levine, his time driving down Interstate 5 was eye-opening. “When people think of California, people tend to focus on Hollywood or Silicon Valley as the state’s most powerful industries. That’s where they think the action happens. No one thinks about farmers,” Levine says. Yet farmers own the water and the land and “nothing happens in California without those two things. Farmers are in a lot of ways the true power brokers in California.”

Levine’s experience with powerful elites dates back to his time as a journalist chronicling the roaring years in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, when rapid privatizations and a bonanza of foreign investment collided to create a new class of oligarchs.

Drawing a comparison between oligarchs in Russia and the US, Levine notes that while there are “differences between the oligarchic power structures,” these details “are almost irrelevant when you consider the root political problem: state policy being crafted by and for the benefit of a tiny elite.”

The idea that pistachio farmers can rise to the political and business elite will not surprise Iranians. Asadollah Asgaroladi, one of Iran’s richest men, built his fortune as Iran’s leading exporter of pistachios and nuts. Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was born to a wealthy family of pistachio farmers in Kerman Province.

Surprising as it may be, American pistachio farmers are no less politically ambitious. Led by the Resnicks, they have sought to bend policy to suit their interests. One of their main efforts, as documented by Levine and Wernham, has been to exert control over water resources, by undermining environmental protections and pushing the Californian government to commoditize water in a marketplace which they can dominate. To achieve this, they have become major political donors. Levine explains that while the Resnicks “cultivate a liberal, progressive image,” notably through their association with celebrity comedian Stephen Colbert, they are “not party purists because business comes first.”

Southern California generally votes democrat, but California’s farmland lies in Republican enclaves, in part because of the Republican candidates are “pro-big business, pro-agriculture and always in favor of projects that direct more water to California farmers,” says Levine. Over the years, the Resnicks have donated to three Republican congressmen: David Valadao, Kevin McCarthy, and Devin Nunes.

All three politicians have been outspoken opponents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal which granted Iran sanctions relief. Nunes believed that the JCPOA “open[ed] the door for the IRGC to exploit the global economy to finance the growth of the IRGC’s web of terrorism to every corner of the planet.” Valadao argued that sanctions relief would provide Iran financial resources that would be used to “make the Middle East even less stable and increase the likelihood of war in the region.” McCarthy praised President Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal earlier this year.

The Resnicks have also donated to prominent Washington lobby groups and think tanks which advocate a confrontational stance on Iran, including the American Jewish Committee and the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, where Reza Pahlavi, son of Iran’s deposed Shah, recently gave a speech calling for a policy of regime change.

Over the years, US sanctions on Iran have been good for the Resnicks. As Levine describes, “the US pistachio industry as a whole is very aware that its success has been born out of the sanctions against Iran.” In his travels in Oligarch Valley, Levine met farmers who were “openly angry about diplomatic measures like Obama’s Iran nuclear deal.”

Back in 1986, American growers shored their newfound dominance of the domestic market by successfully lobbying for a 300 percent tariff of pistachio imports from Iran. From that point, American growers began to turn their attention to international markets.

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The US became the leading exporter of pistachios to the European Union in 2005, before international sanctions on Iran were tightened. In the years since the imposition of sanctions, Iran’s pistachio exports have remained flat, while US exports have since more than doubled.

Trade in pistachios, like all agricultural commodities, is sanctions exempt, but restrictions in banking and logistics services suppress the ability of Iranian growers to get their products to market. Add to this the aggressive marketing and business development activities spearheaded by The Wonderful Company and it is clear that American growers have an edge over Iranian counterparts, even if the Iranian product is widely considered to have a superior taste.

Can Iran fight back in the pistachio war? Iran continues to be a leading producer and a significant exporter of the beloved nut. A few years of poor harvests in California and some better export promotion by Iranian growers could see Iran claw back some of its lost marketshare, especially in Europe. No doubt, the Resnicks will remain vigilant.