The burgeoning success of California pistachios — an industry that became No. 1 in the world in 2008 — can be traced back at least in part to a young farm kid from Tulare who later came to Kern County to develop a solution to a killer problem.
Henry P. “Corky” Anderson III, who would partner for decades with longtime friend Ken Puryear to develop patented rootstocks that protected pistachio trees from an early death, died Feb. 23 at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla. He was 76.
"Corky was an important player in the early pistachio industry," said Craig Kallsen, a Kern County farm adviser with the UC Cooperative Extension who specializes in citrus and pistachios.
"And he was a great cooperator," Kallsen said. "He allowed lots of test trials on his properties."
For decades, Iran dominated pistachio production worldwide. When California farmers began trying their hand at producing pistachios, they only had one rootstock to choose from — and it wasn't working.
A soil-born fungus known as verticillium wilt was killing thousands of trees before they could even reach their sixth year, when the variety begins producing commercially.
Western Farm Press reported in 2015 that some growers would end up replacing more than 100 percent of their orchards over the course of a decade as trees with wilt would survive about four years then die, only to be replaced by the same susceptible variety.
In 1980, Anderson and Puryear's first patented rootstock changed the industry, said Kevin Blackwell, general manager of Pioneer Nursery, the wholesale business founded by the two entrepreneurs.
"In our heyday, we were selling a million trees a year," said Blackwell, who said he has known Anderson for 47 years.
No one does it alone, Kallsen noted. Anderson built and refined his patented rootstock based on earlier research by the University of California.
Anderson and Puryear planted pistachios on 1,200 acres between Bakersfield and Madera, Blackwell said. They continued perfecting their rootstock.
Richard Matoian, executive director of the industry group American Pistachio Growers, said Anderson wasn't only interested in his own success, he was determined to see the success of the entire industry.
"From an industry perspective, Corky was one of those people within our industry who was willing to give of his time for the betterment of the industry's organizations," Matoian said.
"Corky not only helped solve the problem of verticillium wilt, he knew with the industry's success would come his own business success."
The success of pistachios in California has meant huge growth in Kern County. According to Matoian, Kern has been the No. 1 pistachio producer in the state for the past 10 years, with some 94,000 acres planted to the popular tree nut in 2018.
But Puryear and Anderson were involved in much more than pistachio root stock development, Blackwell said. Root pots developed and patented by Pioneer Nursery that promoted healthy root growth became for a time the industry standard.
"Ken and Corky were pretty much highly successful in everything they touched," he said.
They invested in a gold mine in Oregon. And a wind farm in Canada. They diversified into office buildings in Las Vegas and Arizona. And they grew citrus and almonds.
And they enjoyed life.
"Corky really enjoyed being out in the field more than anywhere else," Blackwell said. "And he loved to play golf with his wife, Betty, on Sundays."
Anderson left a legacy. And Blackwell is part of it, along with many others.
"I miss him dearly," he said of his mentor. "He not only was my boss. He was my friend."