The USDA has long purchased food from American producers, but often, some types of products get precedence—such as dairy.
Last week, though, the USDA announced a different sort of mass purchase: the largest seafood purchase in the history of the department and a gigantic amount of pistachios.
The USDA’s purchasing typically serves two purposes: first, to buy crops and other products from farmers who are having trouble selling it, which provides income to them, and also to supply that food to food banks and other distribution programs for the food-insecure. Exactly which products are purchased by the USDA seems to vary based on several factors.
A USDA spokesperson, in reply to an inquiry, wrote in an email that the decision of what products and in what quantities to purchase is “determined by ongoing reviews of agricultural market conditions, requests from industry, demand from federal nutrition program participants and nutritional aspects of the products.” Those “requests from industry” seem important; we’ve seen the dairy industry repeatedly request huge purchases as demand for their products decreases, and local lawmakers will sometimes request purchases for their constituents, as happened with Gulf shrimp last summer.
In mid-April of 2021, lawmakers representing coastal Pacific regions requested that more Pacific seafood be purchased by the USDA. That request seems to have been answered with this new purchase, which is the largest-ever seafood purchase by the USDA. It includes Pacific-caught species such as rockfish, Pacific whiting, pollock, and sockeye salmon, along with more Gulf shrimp.
There’s also one eye-catching number in the press release announcing this purchase. While the announcement focuses on the seafood purchase, the single largest amount of money isn’t for a fish or crustacean; it’s for a crop grown almost exclusively in the deserts of inland California. This purchase announcement includes a whopping $40 million for pistachios, almost twice as much as any other purchase.
Pistachios have become a major crop in inland California, with strong export markets, high prices and lower water requirements than, say, almonds. Requiring less water is extremely valuable in the Central Valley, where water is scarce at the best of times and likely to hit extreme levels this year, thanks to a worse-than-usual rainy season. In fact, the past two years have set records for California pistachio output, and analysts see pistachio acreage rapidly growing into the foreseeable future.
This is a relatively new crop in this quantity; the first USDA purchase of pistachios was only in 2011. But production is absolutely booming: The USDA’s February report predicted an insane 42-percent increase over the previous year. In late 2020, the American Pistachio Growers organization itself said that it is “mounting a full-court press to market the expected one-billion-pound harvest that is now filling bins in processing facilities.”
The USDA spokesperson did not respond to a question on whether the American Pistachio Growers or anyone else had specifically requested that the USDA purchase pistachios, only saying that the USDA “proactively monitors market conditions to determine what products and volumes to purchase under the authority of Section 32.”