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Are Avocados Endangered?

Aired 7/12/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

The avocado harvest in Southern California is about half what it was last year. And that may be just as well for farmers, who are finding it increasingly difficult to find enough labor to pick the fruit from the trees.

Avocados are in. A strong marketing campaign has consumers convinced they not only taste good but are good for you as well. But the avocado harvest in Southern California is about half what it was last year. And that may be just as well for farmers, who are finding it increasingly difficult to find enough labor to pick the fruit from the trees. And that's not the only challenge facing avocado farmers this summer.

Guest: Eric Larson, executive director, San Diego County Farm Bureau

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: And you're listening to Midday Edition on KPBS. I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Well, avocados are in. A strong marketing campaign has consumers convinced they're not only good to eat, but good for you as well. But the avocado harvest in Southern California is just about half what it was last year. That may be due to farmers finding it increasingly difficult to find enough laborer to pick the fruit from the trees. Here to explain the story behind the high price of avocados and the industry as a whole is Eric Larson, executive director of San Diego County farm bureau. Thanks so much for joining us.

LARSON: Thanks for having me on.

ST. JOHN: If you've got any questions or comments, how important is it to you that you can still buy a fresh avocado grown right here in San Diego County? You can call us at 1-888-895-5727. So Eric, how big a business is avocado growing for assistant district attorney?

LARSON: It's a pretty good size. It'll raise depending on the size of the crop and the price. From a hundred and 25 to a hundred and $60†million per year. And that's the wholesale value to the growers, what the grower actually gets. But to the whole economy, if you look at the payroll and everything else, it could be worth as much 300 to $400†million a year to San Diego County.

ST. JOHN: That's the whole farming industry as a whole, not just avocado --

LARSON: No, that's just avocados.

ST. JOHN: Just avocados. Interesting.

LARSON: Yes. It has more acreage in our irrigated crops, more acreage in avocados than any other crop in the county.

ST. JOHN: Is that how it's been for a while or is it going down or up?

LARSON: It's interesting. Prices have incrementally gone up, so we're getting pretty good return in gross dollars. But the number of acreage is shrinking. So we're losing acreage virtually every day here simply because the margins have gotten so narrow for growers and some of them are making a decision to exit the business.

ST. JOHN: Yeah. Of course there's a lot of factors behind there. But tell us, what kind of a year is it this year for avocado growers? Is it a good crop this year?

LARSON: It's kind of a funny year. It's a small crop. But the prices are very high. Growers are very excited about the prices they're getting, bull they're not getting the kind of volume from the trees they'd like to get in the very best of years. So good price, but lower volume.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So the fact that it's a light crop this year might be helping with the latest woe to beset the county's growers. There's a shortage of laborer to pick the fruit. What's happened?

LARSON: There's a lot of speculation. But our crop came in a little bit late this year. So one theory is that the pickers were here in the area, got tired of waiting to get the call to go out and pick the fruit and then went off and found work some place else. Another possible theory is the fact that we actually have an aging work force in the avocado business. The pickers have gotten a little bit older. And it's very hard demanding work climbing up and down the hill side, getting ladders and carrying bags of fruit. But there's definitely a shortage.

ST. JOHN: Does the illegal immigration changes figure into the equation?

LARSON: Yeah, there's so much increased enforcement. And I just -- we're not gonna try to hide the fact that a lot of workers in agriculture are using fraudulent documents. And that's kind of a symptom of our broken immigration system, and the fact that we don't have a guest worker program. So with increased enforcement along the boarder and in the agricultural areas, there's fewer people out there seeking the work. There's just not as many workers.

ST. JOHN: We actually just did a program about that very issue, and the new research suggesting that immigration is just down, not just because of our economy but also because of changing demographics in Mexico and border enforcement and better education in Mexico. A lot of different factors all factoring into this same issue. And it sounds like it's showing up for the avocado farmers?

LARSON: It is. Not just the avocado farmers, but I had a conversation with a lemon grower this morning who has the exact same problem. Can't find enough pickers. It leads us more to the farm community's belief that we do need some kind of a guest worker program so workers can seasonally easily move back and forth across the borer.

ST. JOHN: We're talking with Eric Larsen, and you talk about a workers' visa, and we had the same family tomato farm on Camp Pendleton, and just closed down earlier this year. They had a program like that. So it doesn't sound like that's the solution if they closed down. What would you say to that?

LARSON: Yeah, they used a program that's called the H2A program. And that's the federal program that allows an agricultural employer to bring workers in from a foreign country, most notably from Mexico. It's extremely complicated, takes a tremendous amount of sophistication, legal work, a lot of timing, and it's very, very expensive. So it is just not popular. That family were the only users in the county of that program. Without them, we have no farmers using that program in the county now. It's too hard to use, and it needs to be reworked.

ST. JOHN: I read that the former manager of the Singh farm says that the former manager of the visa program has slipped into chaos. Have there been some changes recently that's made it more difficult to use?

LARSON: I think it's just so hard to manage when you look at the H2A program, it has very strict requirements on transportation, housing, providing meals to the workers, and unfortunately there's some folks out there, you just barely slip up on any one thing and the next thing you know you've got the federal authorities brining actions against you. And it makes the farmers too vulnerable, so they choose to stay away from the program

ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 is our number here. Bud is calling us from -- oh, bob, I beg your partner. Bob from Escondido. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: I don't really accept the concept that Americans just won't take the jobs that we need the illegal immigrants or the immigrants or the guest workers, whatever you want to call them to do this job because that's a part of the sentence that's being left off. And that is that meshes won't take the jobs at the price they're willing to pay as wages. If you doubled or tripled or quad drupled, or whatever, you'd have people lining up around the jobs upon so it's a function of economics and it's kind of a false choice. And that's my point

ST. JOHN: Okay, bob, thanks for that. What do you think about that, Eric?

LARSON: Well, I think what happens is you have to understand the economics of it. To double or triple or quadruple the price you're going to pay your workers, we will have no agriculture in San Diego County. Such a choice for us to make as a community. The reality is, and it is the reality, and we see this time and time again, in fact the Singh family was a good example of this. Before they did the H2A program, they were obligated to advise for local workers and they would get none. American born folks just aren't willing to do the ag work. But then you add the economics. Double, quadruple the pay, there's no profit margin left for the farmer, and there's no reason to grow the crop. And they will then exit the business

ST. JOHN: And agriculture would be gone from San Diego

LARSON: It would absolutely be gone, yes.

ST. JOHN: Do you have an opinion on this? 1-888-895-5727 about the importance or do you think that really times are changing and agriculture should just be allowed to die off in San Diego? That seems to be a lot of what's happening here. We've got Daniel on the line from Clairemont. What's your perspective?

NEW SPEAKER: We can't afford to have it die off.

ST. JOHN: Okay.

NEW SPEAKER: I'm gonna tell you why. And I told people about this in the housing situation almost 20†years ago. There's gonna be a situation where we won't be able to afford housing. And that situation has come. And we're not going to be able to afford food. If we have food coming from some place else, they can charge whatever they want to charge. And we don't really have a choice. If we can no longer own our own homes, we have to move into apartments, then we can no longer regulate how we spend our money that way too. That's already a transition coming in. And we're going to see this now. And we also see the permissional factor causing us big costs within our government, and with us personally too. We need to think about what we're doing, and the thing is is that the guy telling that wages need to be higher, that's true too. Because the rent and the gas is so much higher to get to that job, that's 30†miles away where the farm is, and you can't afford to live in that neighborhood

ST. JOHN: That's right. That's what the farmers are finding. They can't afford to house the workers, and the workers can't afford to find housing in San Diego County otherwise. But you're someone who believes -- who believes in growing locally. What do you mean by that?

NEW SPEAKER: I mean that what we need to do is just like what my father did when we were living poor. We just made a plot right out in the housing association or that we listened in government housing at that time. My pop had a bad heart problem. So we just cut a plot in the lawn area. We askeded the manager if we could do that. And we gruesome stuff. And then three miles away, we used to grow some other stuff at the community garden. And other than the people from the neighborhood coming and stealing the crops that we grew, it changed my life because I understood the value of the art of life, and I also understood the value of digging my hands in the soil and seeing the production of what I did.

ST. JOHN: Well, Daniel, thank you so much for that point. And it's really true that we're seeing a lot more sort of urban agriculture happening, which is ironic, Eric Larson, isn't it? Because while we're seeing commercial agriculture struggling, we're seeing people trying to billed up more of this small urban agriculture in their backyards or community plots. So it's not like people want to see agriculture go is it?

LARSON: Not at all. I think most people embrace agriculture. They like the idea of having farmers in their community. And the urban agriculture is a nice variation from that. It's nice to see a vacant lot turn into a vegetable patch. But the reality is, we have three million people in San Diego County, and what? 17 or 20 million people in Southern California. We're not going to feed that mass of people with urban agriculture or urban plots. It could be part of it. But it never will be the answer to it. We also need the commercial farms out there as well. And that's where that struggle is, keeping those commercial farms profitable. So we keep those farmers in our midst

ST. JOHN: So we talked about the difficulty of finding laborer now. Kind was water that has been a problem ongoing is, what's the news on that front this year?

LARSON: I mentioned the fact that we have had some farmers, exit farming in San Diego County most recently. We think it's around 5,000†acres in the last year. Maybe another number be similar to that, and that's disturbing to see that happen. And that's been driven by the price of water. We've all domestically seen our water bills go up 5, 10, $15 a month. But for farmers those increases are in the thousands of dollars a month. And the farmers in San Diego County are paying such a high price for their water because they're hooked up to the domestic water supply, it's really cutting down on their margins 'cause farmers cannot increase the price for their product based on the input -- the cost inputs. It's a perishable product. They have to take whatever the market price is each day. If there's a thin margin, people are deciding to turn their water meters off

ST. JOHN: So you said the prices are high this year, even though the actual harvest is not so dig. So it's a good year for avocado farmers. What's the outlook for the next year and the future

LARSON: For avocado grower, it comes down to really one thing: How many pounds of avocados can they produce on an acre? Your costs are going to be the same, whether that acre produces 6,000†pounds of avocados or produces 20,000†pounds. So the challenge for all the avocado growers is to increase the amount of production they get per acre. They have to be very aware of that, they have to work for hard at that. And they have to really manage everything they do to get that maximum production per acre. If they're able to do that, it's a good market, Americans love domestically grown avocados. But if they can produce enough per acre, they might be able to over come these higher costs of production.

ST. JOHN: Thanks so much for bringing us up to indicate OO that. I think you're right. A lot of us love avocados. Especially locally grown ones. Thank you

LARSON: My pleasure. Thanks

ST. JOHN: That's Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County farm bureau.

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