As anybody who has recently indulged their appetite for pine nuts can tell you, prices are climbing.
The reasons are several — poor crops, increased demand and the ever-popular climate change. And prospects for a turnaround aren't good.
The domestic version of pine nuts comes from the West and Southwest, produced by the pinyon pine. The vast majority of pine nuts, though, are imported from China. There have been problems in both locations.
"(China) had a pretty terrible crop last year," said David Braverman, one of the owners of nutsonline.com, a New Jersey business that has been dealing in nuts since 1929. "They lost a significant amount of the crop. And in addition, the demand in China was higher than it has ever been. So they cut their exports. A poor crop coupled with the high demand, and there was very little to go around."
The problem in the U.S. can be blamed on climate change, according to Dayer LeBaron, the CEO of wholesalepinenuts.com, a Utah-based family business that has been harvesting pine nuts since the late '50s.
Pine nuts are slow to develop, he explained. They're the seeds that develop inside a pine cone, and it takes 18 months to reach maturity. In the spring, a pine tree releases pollen that pollinates other trees. By early or mid-summer, a cone the size of a small marble is formed. It goes dormant for the fall and winter, then develops into a mature cone, bearing the fruit (pine seeds) the following spring. In the U.S., pine nuts are harvested in fall; in China, it's usually in December.
But LeBaron says the process is breaking down these days. The snowpack that nourishes pine trees gradually in the spring and early summer is vanishing because of the warmer weather patterns.
"If you go back into early '70s or the '60s, you could rely on a good harvest every year throughout the western mountains of the United States," he said. "Now it's very spotty, only mostly on the north side of the mountain ranges where the snowpack lasts longer."
"All the factors, we don't know … but what happens is, when these (pines) rely on the humidity and get shorted by Mother Nature, the tree aborts its fruit or it doesn't reach maturity."
The result, LeBaron said, is that prices of domestically produced pine nuts have increased 200 percent in the last five years; imported nut prices have jumped between 800 and 1,000 percent.
"Pretty much all the nut commodities have gone up in the last few years," added Braverman. "Some stuff has come down, but pine nuts are typically a higher priced good to begin with. It did come down in 2008-09 a little bit."
Libba Letton, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods Market, said that prices have "probably doubled" in the last year, but added that pine nuts are still available.
"My distribution guys tell me we're not seeing any shortage," she said. "In situations like this, we typically have a lot of different suppliers working for us. So if the supply dips somewhere, we can usually backfill from somebody else. Yes, prices have definitely gone up, but we haven't seen a shortage."
The prospects for a quick rebound are slim.
Braverman said the new crop from China will be arriving in early November, a little earlier than years past, and the outlook looks better than last year. "Not a wonderful crop but definitely better," one that he expects will bring slightly lower prices. LeBaron isn't as hopeful.
"It was a wonderful harvest for this year coming along," he said. "And 90 percent of it has been aborted by the trees already because of a lack of humidity in the mountains."
There's not much that can be done either. Cultivating acres of pines isn't an option, and not just because of the years it would take for the trees to start producing fruit. The right location and climate would be big stumbling blocks.
"Suppose you wanted to plant an orchard, you'd have to do it at an elevation at 5,500 to 8,500 feet," LeBaron said. "The tree will not give fruit in very hot conditions. The elevation is a big factor. So, find a farm location at that elevation, then you have to bring water to it, et cetera, et cetera. It's quite an operation. It is doable, but you'd need a lot of resources. I don't see anything happening anytime soon as far as farming this product."
Pine nut substitutions
Pine nut lovers are at the mercy of nature. But they can make do, Whole Food's Libba Letton said. Her tips:
For pesto, lightly dry-toasted walnuts will work.
To top pasta or put in a salad, try coarsely chopped macadamia nuts or pecans.
Toasted sunflower kernels can be used as a topping for salads and soups.
Brazil nuts have a similar resinous quality that some of the other nuts lack.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.