Santa Barbara Pistachio Company StorefrontThe Zannon family discovered the Cuyama Valley in the early ’80s as a vacation getaway from their coastal California community. About a decade later, they purchased land in the valley and began to plant pistachio trees. What began as 50 acres of crop in 1991 has grown into the thriving, family-run Santa Barbara Pistachio Company.

Gene Zannon told me he had no background in farming when he first decided to grow pistachios. He continued to work in marketing and finance while farming part-time until the operation grew to a size that required more attention.

The Zannons chose to grow pistachios in particular because there were already some trees in the valley, so they knew the climate was good for them. Gene says pistachio trees are hearty plants, one of the Founder Crops that were first cultivated in the Fertile Crescent at the beginning of agriculture. “They’ll generally survive unless you have a reason to pull them up,” he says.

Gene and his family have worked over the decades to create a vertically-integrated company, where they handle every step of the process with the exception of removing the outer hull of the nut. Since 2007, Santa Barbara Pistachios has been 100% organic. They have a line of flours, butters, oils, and candies, but Gene says their most popular products continue to be roasted pistachios, with regular salted taking first place.

When I asked Gene how they balanced local farmers markets with more national accounts, he said they had participated in national food shows around a decade ago, but now the accounts they have outside of their locality come from word-of-mouth customer requests.

Gene says one of the challenges his company faces is its remote location, which hinders their ability to hire skilled workers and can make it difficult to access utilities like electricity. The main road to the farm was washed out in one of the recent California storms and won’t be navigable for months.

But Gene says his company is in a good place. One son now runs the farm operation while his other son runs the plant. He’s also happy with the scale they’ve achieved. He says, “Philosophically, I would rather have a profitable small company than an unprofitable large business.”

You can find Santa Barbara Pistachios’ Salted Pistachio Kernels and Salted Pistachios in the Shell at the Farm Store–special thanks to a customer request!

written by Sushannah Laurange