The Chinese call pistachios the "happy nut." But these days, it's California nut growers who are smiling.
China has become the industry's fastest-growing export market, boosting its purchase of U.S. pistachios to $109 million a year from $5 million in 2004.
And with more than 1.3 billion people, China could easily become the industry's biggest customer.
"They have the potential to buy a lot of pistachios," said Jim Zion, managing partner of Meridian Nut Growers in Clovis.
Underscoring that potential, a dozen Chinese importers and news media representatives this week are visiting the central San Joaquin Valley -- the heart of the nation's pistachio industry.
The Chinese visitors arrived Monday in Fresno and have toured pistachio orchards in Kern County, a processing facility in Tulare and the Institute of Technology in Clovis, where they sampled dishes that used pistachios as an ingredient.
"This is where pistachios come from, and we want to see how they are produced," said Huy Liao, managing director of the Shanghai Weijen Trading Co., which sells nuts to snack-food companies.
Chinese interest in U.S.-grown pistachios accelerated two years ago when China's traditional supplier -- Iran -- experienced drought and cold weather, which hurt its pistachio crop. U.S. suppliers filled the gap, and Chinese consumers were hooked.
Oh, and the reason they call it the "happy nut"? The Chinese say that a pistachio's cracked shell looks like a smile.
While a "Made in China" label might make a product look cheap to U.S. consumers, the opposite is true in China, where a "Made in the U.S.A." label can be a selling point.
"They see [U.S.-grown products] as being safer and having very good quality," said Luyah Jiang, an assistant with the Sum-Lum Export Co. in Heshan who is among the visitors to the Valley this week.
Richard Matoian, executive director of the Western Pistachio Association in Fresno, said that during a recent trade mission to China, he saw some pistachio packages with a "Made in the U.S.A." label.
And the emerging Chinese middle class -- with its increasing levels of disposable income -- has shown an appetite for U.S. pistachios.
The nation's largest pistachio grower, Kern County-based Paramount Farms, is trying to cash in on that. The company has nine full-time sales and marketing people in China who meet regularly with buyers to pitch its Wonderful brand of pistachios.
"Their sole purpose is to expand the demand for pistachios," said Andy Anzaldo, Paramount's director of grower relations.
The efforts appear to be paying off: China has become the No. 2 export market, behind the European Union.
That has helped California expand its pistachio industry. California produces 98% of the U.S.-grown pistachios and ships about 65% of its crop overseas. Last year, the state's crop was valued at $787 million, up from $161 million in 1999.
This year, California harvested pistachios on about 135,000 acres. Another 80,000 acres will be producing the nuts over the next several years.
For some Chinese consumers, that could be a reason to celebrate. While many eat pistachios primarily as a snack food, the nut is also an important part of Chinese spring festivals.
"It the equivalent of the chocolate egg at Easter time," Liao said.