Agriculture

Merced man cracks pistachio problem

After spending some five years on the project, Ahmad Foroutan, 43, of Merced, hopes to have Zymex Industries Inc. up  and running within the next couple of months. The business will be an all-natural foods processing plant working with items such as pistachio nuts and passion fruit leaves.
After spending some five years on the project, Ahmad Foroutan, 43, of Merced, hopes to have Zymex Industries Inc. up and running within the next couple of months. The business will be an all-natural foods processing plant working with items such as pistachio nuts and passion fruit leaves. SUN-STAR PHOTO BY GEORGE MACDONALD

Ahmad Foroutan knelt in front of a small vacuum pump that gurgled like some device from Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

A rubber tube led from the machine to a glass bottle in his hand. It was filled with water and floating pistachio nuts, each closed tight. Tiny bubbles managed to escape from the shells as the air was sucked from the bottle.

When Foroutan disconnected the tube from the bottle, the pistachio shells filled with water and sank, tinkling on the glass bottle's bottom.

Five minutes later the tightly shut shells were open. Foroutan had just stuck them in the microwave, the water expanded, and voila.

"In the old times, they were sent to China and hand split," he said.

His young daughter, Anahita, helped him discover it when they were trying to dry some of the pistachios that Foroutan grows. The nuts were raw and she thought they should put them in the microwave. When they came out, the shells had opened on their own and Foroutan had discovered a new way to crack nuts. He and his daughter patented the process.

This innovation, which he has yet to use on a large scale, could save him a lot of money. As it stands, the difference in price between pistachio that have open shells and those that are closed is 50 percent, said Foroutan.

"Any time there is a difference between what should be and is, there is room for improvement," he said of his invention.

But Foroutan is not exactly an inventor; he is a pistachios, herb and pomegranate grower on the cusp of becoming more. With wholesale and retail lines, his company, Zymex Industries Inc., plans to expand into a provider of all sorts of natural goods for the food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.

But he won't be just another nut processor. His pistachio nut splitting patent is just one of his many ideas to make his business thrive through innovation, quality and low prices. "Our primary goal is to get into providing the raw material to industry," he said. "At some point, I hope to be able to do all of it here." For now, he just needs his equipment to get started.

From his now silent 16,000-square-foot facility on Merced's south side, he plans to process, distribute and pack his numerous agricultural products from pomegranate seeds and rinds, to passion fruit leaves and vegetables.

Originally from Kerman, Iran, where his family had grown pistachios, Foroutan moved to the United States in 1984 where he received his Ph.D. in neuroscience.

In 1996, he got into pistachio growing when he and his wife moved to Fresno. Soon he bought more land and began growing pomegranates, herbs and spices.

Now he has 1,300 acres in three counties across the Valley. From his land in Tulare and Madera, Foroutan grows pomegranates, passion fruit, medicinal and cooking herbs and, of course, pistachio nuts.

Almost four years ago, he started talking to the city of Merced about buying the land he now occupies. Now he's just waiting to get his roasting, packing and processing equipment.

Once things get going full speed, he says, they hope to roast, pack and flavor their pistachios all in Merced.

But along the way they aim to process a lot of other items. For example, they want to take the pomegranates they grow, extract their seeds for bulk sale, their rinds for cosmetics and their juice for drinking.

Now most pomegranate juice makers don't use the whole fruit. "They just crush the whole thing," said Foroutan. Then they feed the rind to animals. He wants to use it all.

Like his innovative shell opening process, Foroutan hopes that using all of a pomegranate will reduce the cost. He is currently waiting for a pomegranate seed -- or aril -- remover to be delivered, which he had specially designed.

In his office, Foroutan, showed of his different products. He lined up a couple tubs of his pistachios, describing their unique coloring and flavor from his roasting process. "The fresh pistachio has a much different taste in itself; it's softer," he explained.

He emphasized that most pistachios out there have shells that are almost white. His are roasted differently, so they have a woodier hue. "The looks are different," he said.

He aims to use only natural ingredients with all his products. From the sea salt he uses to the flavoring, he says, it's about getting real flavors, not synthesized ones, to use in his products. "The fact that it's really a raw material at its best; that's what makes a difference."

For now he can only wait until his roasting and processing equipment arrives. In the mean time, he can start thinking about how to crack a lot more nuts than a handful.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209)385-2484 or jlamb@mercedsun-star.com.

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