Monday, February 13, 2012
San Diego County farmers produce more avocados each year than anywhere else in the United States. But that number one ranking could change by the end of the year, because the region’s avocado industry is facing pressures.
Avocados are more popular today than they’ve ever been. Pick a market, go to the produce aisle and you’ll see the green fruit.
“The taste, the creaminess, at times it has a hickory wood taste to it. Its very unique,” said Don Nishiguchi, a produce buyer for Whole Foods markets in San Diego.
He travels the region to find the best local avocados. Buying the green fist sized fruit from local farmers is part of the store’s effort to sell locally grown foods. The climate in Southern California is perfect for growing the leafy green trees and the produce has a following.
“Avocado’s is very good in the nutrition, diet altogether,” according to Nishiguchi. “It is a good fat for us to all have. On top of it, there’s so many ways you can prepare avocados. You can grill it, you can make guacamole, it is the biggest thing. The big holidays are Super-bowl and Cinco de Mayo.”
Americans ate roughly 71 million pounds of avocados on Super Bowl Sunday, but unfortunately for local farmers, those avocados probably did not come from California.
That’s because imports are vying for shopper’s attentions in San Diego and the rest of the country. Competition from Mexican and Chilean growers squeezed the local’s market. Locals used to be able to sell for eight months a year. Now it’s four, April through July.
Burnett Wohlford’s family has grown avocados in Northern San Diego County for decades. He’s standing in the middle of an Escondido grove and he’s holding a 14 foot long pole.
“This is what they call a picking pole,” said Wohlford. “It’s a long pole with a bag on the end. And right above the bag they have a clipper, so when you pull on the rope along side of the pole, it clips the fruit and the fruit drops into the bag.”
That allows pickers to reach up into trees that can grow 40 feet tall, and snag nearly ripe fruit. Wohlford and other growers typically hire contractors to harvest, but that is getting tougher to do.
“It is mostly migrant people from Mexico that come up and do most of our labor,” said Wohlford. “Nobody else wants to climb a 40-foot tree, on a ladder, with an 80-pound picking bag and a pole and be up in the top of a tree picking avocados. There’s no body else that we can find to do the labor.”
And the contractors are choosy, according to Wohlford. If a grove isn’t large and full of fruit, they may decide to pick elsewhere. The best way to ensure a bountiful grove is to feed it plenty of water. But that is increasingly a challenge.
“The price of water. It can’t be ignored,” said Eric Larsen, President of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. “Its what’s making some growers exit the business. So as the price of water has gone up, it is really, really squeezing the margin. So all of a sudden some growers are realizing, I’m working for nothing.”
Avocado groves used to be all over San Diego County hillsides and valleys. Larsen says acreage peaked at about 40,000 acres in the 1990’s. A drought brought mandatory water cutbacks a few years ago, forcing many farmers to get rid of 30-percent of their trees. Local groves continue to shrink as farmers deal with water, labor and market issues.
“I think what we’ll find is we’ll probably stabilize around 15,000 acres, just a guess on my part, of avocado production. Probably about half the footprint we had at the peak. But those I think will be very, very stable,” according to Larsen.
Ventura County could supplant San Diego as the market leader. That region has the same market and labor issues, but the price of water there is much cheaper. That would end San Diego’s decades long run as the nation top avocado producer in the state and the nation. Ironically, 2011 was the best year ever for San Diego avocado growers. High market prices pushed the monetary value of the crop up, even as the acreage shrank.