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Save the Guacamole: New Planting Method Offers Hope To San Diego Avocado Industry

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Save the Guacamole: New Planting Method Offers Hope To San Diego Avocado Industry
Save the Guacamole: New Planting Method Offers Hope To San Diego Avocado Industry
Save the Guacamole: New Planting Method Offers Hope To San Diego Avocado Industry GUESTS:Gary Bender, farm adviser emeritus, University of California Cooperative Extension Eric Larson, executive director, San Diego County Farm Bureau

YOU ARE LISTENING TO "MIDDAY EDITION", I'M TOM FUDGE. CALIFORNIA PRODUCES 90% OF AVOCADOS GROWN IN THE US AND ABOUT HALF OF THOSE ARE GROWN IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY. BUT THE DROUGHT HAS BEEN DEVASTATING TO THE AVOCADO BUSINESS, JUST AS IT HAS BEEN TO ALLSTATE ORCHARDS. MANY ACRES OF AVOCADO TREES AND SAN DIEGO COUNTIES HAVE BEEN ABANDONED OR DESTROYED DUE TO WATER PRICES OR SHORTAGES. BUT, WHAT IF YOU COULD COME UP WITH A NEW METHOD OF PLANTING THAT CREATED A SUPERIOR YIELD, EVEN USING LESS WATER, YOU GET TWICE AS MANY AVOCADOS? THAT VERY THING MIGHT BE HAPPENING IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY RIGHT NOW AND JOINING ME IN STUDIO TO TALK ABOUT IT IS GARY BENDER, FARM ADVISOR A MANTIS WITH YOU SEE EXTENSION AND HAS A SPECIALTY IN AVOCADO GROVES. THANK YOU FOR COMING IN. ERIC LARSON JOINED BY PHONE, HE IS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE SAN DIEGO COUNTY FARM BUREAU. GOOD TO HAVE YOU. THANKS FOR THE INVITATION. GARY, I'M GOING TO START WITH YOU. WE'RE TALKING ABOUT A PLANTING METHOD THAT I THINK IS CALLED HIGH DENSITY PLANTING. PART OF IT IS SIMPLY THE QUESTION OF HOW CLOSELY TO EACH OTHER YOU PLAN TO THESE AVOCADO TREES. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THAT? HISTORICALLY WE WERE PLANTING ON A 20 BY 20 SPACE IN. THE TREES GROW TOGETHER FAIRLY QUICKLY AND THEN START CLIMBING FOR LIGHT. A LOT OF THE TREES GET VERY HIGH AND THE FRUIT GETS VERY HIGH UP IN THE TREES AND PEOPLE ARE USING 30 FOOT LADDERS TO PICK THEM AND IT'S VERY SLOW. AND OUR YIELDS WERE GOING DOWN. WE NEED HIGHER YIELDS TO BE ABLE TO PAY THE WATER BILLS WHICH ARE GOING UP. A HOUR IN FALLBROOK NAMED RUBEN HOFSHE VISITED CHILE AND WROTE ABOUT HOW THEY WERE DOING HIGH DENSITY AND IMPROVING YIELDS BUT NOTHING MUCH WAS DONE ABOUT THAT. I STARTED THINKING ABOUT THAT JUST RECENTLY AND WROTE A GRANT PROPOSAL TO THE CALIFORNIA AVOCADO COMMISSION THAT WE TRY HIGHER DENSITY, 10 BY 10 AND KEEP IMPROVED TO 8 FEET. LOAD THEM WITH B'S AND WE ARE IMPROVING OUR YIELDS. YOU ARE IMPROVING YOUR YIELDS. AS A MATTER FACT I READ IN SOME PLACE, ONE CASE, I THINK YOU'RE WORKING WITH A LOCAL AVOCADO GROWER NAMED NICK STALEY WITH THE FAMILY THAT ARE BIG FARMERS AROUND HERE. AND ON NICK'S FARM, TELL US ABOUT THE EFFECT THAT THESE METHODS HAD. WELCOME OUR TREES ARE ONLY 2 1/2 YEARS OLD AND WE HAD BEEN DOING THIS INTERESTED OUR HARVEST AND WE GOT ABOUT DOUBLE THE COUNT OF AVERAGE YIELD. A LITTLE BIT MORE THAN DOUBLE OF THE AVERAGE YIELD. NOW, THAT IS ONLY OUR FIRST HARVEST, IN BIOLOGY, YOU SAVE GOT TO GET AT LEAST FIVE OR SIX YEARS OF DATA. OKAY, SO YOU ARE ACTUALLY ABLE TO DOUBLE TO YIELD. DID YOU USE LESS WATER OR SAME AMOUNT OF WATER? WE KEPT TRACK OF OUR WATER AND WE USED ABOUT TWO AND HALF ACRE-FEET, AND NICK, ON HIS BIG TREES WERE USING FOR ACRE-FEET. WE WERE USING 60%. MY GOODNESS, YOURS USING 60% OF THE WATER AND GETTING TWICE THE GUILT? SO FAR. THAT IS PRETTY AMAZING. NOW WHAT IS IT ABOUT PUTTING THE TREES CLOSE TOGETHER THAT MAKES THEM BETTER PRODUCERS? HERE'S THE DEAL. I DECIDED TO PUT A POSITIVE TREE AMONGST THE TREES SO FOR EVERY EIGHT HASS TREES, I HAVE A PALM AND LASER, SO THE SEEDS COME FROM ALL SIDES IN THE B'S DON'T HAVE FAR TO GO TO CROSS POLLINATE. SO WE'VE DISCOVERED OVER THE YEARS, IF YOU HAVE A ZOO DON'T KNOW NEAR A HASS, IT INCREASES THE YIELD OF BOTH TREES SO WE'RE GETTING PHENOMENAL PRODUCTION AND EVERYBODY SAID WE ARE GOING TO GO INTO AN OFF CYCLE BUT WE'VE GOT A GOOD SET ALREADY. FOR THIS NEXT YEAR. AND IT SOUNDS LIKE, WHEN YOU PRUNE THEM, YOU TRY TO TURN IT INTO A SHORT, FAT AVOCADO TREE, RIGHT? KIND OF LIKE A FAT CHRISTMAS TREE SHAPE. WHY DOES THAT HELP THE YIELD? WE ARE KEEPING THE SUNLIGHT DOWN TO THE BOTTOM LEAVES OF THE TREE. IN NORMAL PRODUCTION AND GROWTH, THE TREES, THE TOP BRANCHES SHADE OUT THE LOW BRANCHES AND LEAVES FALL OFF SO THEY JUST KEEP FIGHTING FOR LIGHT. WE ARE FORCING THESE TREES NOT TO DO THAT. AND BEFORE I GET TO ERIC, ONCE AGAIN, PLANTING THEM CLOSE TOGETHER, DOES THAT CAUSE THEM TO USE LESS WATER OR ARE THEY USING LESS WATER BECAUSE THEY ARE MORE PRODUCTIVE? GOOD QUESTION. YOU KNOW, YOU LOOK AT THESE BIG 30 OR 40 FOOT TREES UP IN THE WIND INTERCEPTING AN AWFUL LOT OF WIND, AND I KIND OF THEORIZE THAT MAYBE THEY ARE USING MORE WATER THAN SHORT TREES AND SO FAR THAT IS WHAT IS HAPPENING. THAT'S MY THEORY, ANYWAY. IT'S HARD TO PROVE. LET ME GET TO ERIC LARSON JOINING US BY PHONE. HE'S WITH THE SAN DIEGO COUNTY FARM BUREAU. ERIC, I READ THAT ONE AVOCADO TRADE GROUP HAS SAID THAT AMERICAN AVOCADO CONSUMPTION HAS INCREASED FOURFOLD SINCE THE YEAR 2000. I GUESS WE REALLY LIKE AVOCADOS. YEAH, IT HAS BEEN REMARKABLE INCREASE. IT WASN'T THAT MANY YEARS AGO, IF YOU DIDN'T LIVE IN CALIFORNIA, AVOCADO WAS AN ETHNIC FRUIT ACROSS THE UNITED STATES BUT AS POPULATION HAS CHANGED, AND MORE FOLKS OF MEXICAN HERITAGE TOOK THE LOVE OF AVOCADOS ACROSS THE U.S. AND ALL THE CITIES, EVERYBODY WANTS AVOCADOS. NOW THEY ARE STATE BORN ACROSS THE COUNTRY UNFORTUNATELY, AVOCADOS GROWN IN CALIFORNIA ARE HELD THAT HIGH ESTEEM AND ARE IN DEMAND BY CONSUMERS. WHAT KIND OF HARDSHIPS HAVE THE DROUGHT BROUGHT TO LOCAL AVOCADO GROWERS? WELL YOU KNOW, YOU HAVE TO GO BACK TO 1991. THAT IS THE LAST TIME WE HAD A VERY TERRIBLE DROUGHT IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY. IN ALL OF CALIFORNIA WE ARE FACING A 50% CUT IN WATER. WE HAD THE THING CALLED THE MIRACLE MARCH, IT RAINED, SNOW, WE AVOIDED THAT. BUT THE FOLKS AT THE METROPOLITAN WATER DISTRICT IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY WATER AUTHORITY DID NOT WANT TO FACE AGAIN SO THEY STARTED TO GET WATER FROM DIFFERENT SOURCES. AND AS THAT PORTFOLIO EXPANDED, THE PRICE OF WATER WENT UP. BECAUSE THE ORIGINAL TWO SOURCES OF WATER, COLORADO RIVER IN SACRAMENTO DELTA WHERE RELATIVELY INEXPENSIVE. THAT AS THEY BOTH MORE STORAGE, ACCESS, OTHER STORAGES OF WATER THE PRICE WENT UP. FOR AVOCADO GROWERS THAT WAS THE FIRST IMPACT OF DROUGHT. IT WAS IN 1991 DROWNED BUT THE IMPACT HAS GROWN OVER THE YEARS AND NOW OUR FARMERS ARE FACING THESE VERY HIGH PRICES FOR WATER. NOW LOOKING SHORT TERM, WE HAVE HAD LESS THAN NORMAL RAINFALL THE LAST TWO YEARS. THE NET RESULT WAS FARMERS HAD TO BUY MORE OF THAT EXPENSIVE WATER IN DECEMBER, JANUARY, AND FEBRUARY THEM THEY NORMALLY EXPECT. AND SO IT HAS REALLY IMPACTED THEIR BOTTOM LINE. AND HAVE YOU SEEN AVOCADO FARMERS GO OUT OF BUSINESS? JUST HAVE TO LET THEIR TREES DIE? YEAH, IT'S REALLY UNFORTUNATE. WHEN GARY IS TALKING ABOUT IS EXTREMELY PROGRESSIVE BUT ALSO AN EXPENSIVE THING TO DO. AND WE HAVE SEEN A NUMBER OF FARMERS, ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO ARE OLDER, AND I LIKE TO TELL THE LISTENERS THE AVERAGE AGE OF A FARMER IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY IS AROUND 60 YEARS OLD. AVERAGE AGE. SO IF WE GET FOLKS ON THE UPPER END OF THE SCALE, MAYBE THERE IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO DO SOMETHING LIKE REWORK THEIR IRRIGATION SYSTEM OR DO DENSE PLANTING, THEY LOOK AT THE PAYBACK, A LITTLE TOO FAR OUT CONSIDERING THE AGE, SO THEY REACH OVER AND SWITCH THE VALVE OFF OF THE WATER AND ABANDON THE AVOCADO GROVES. IT IS AN UNFORTUNATE THING BUT WE SEE IT HAPPEN REGULARLY. ERIC, I THINK I HEARD YOU SAY PROBABLY ON THIS PROGRAM THAT WHEN YOU HAVE AN ORCHARD, IT'S NOT LIKE YOU CAN JUST FOLLOW YOUR FIELD, RIGHT? THAT'S EXACTLY RIGHT. AND AVOCADO TREE HAS TO HAVE CONSISTENT IRRIGATION. THERE ARE SOME OTHER CROPS. ANNUAL CROPS, IF YOU JUST IMPLANT WHEN YOU ARE FINE. YOU CAN COME BACK AND PLANNED FOR NEXT YEAR. BUT WHEN YOU HAVE A PERMANENT CROPS LIKE AN AVOCADO, IT NEEDS TO HAVE WHAT A SWELL ALL THE TIME. YOU ARE EITHER IRRIGATING OR THE ROAD GUYS. THERE IS NO MIDDLE GROUND THERE AT ALL. MY GUESTS HERE, GARY BENDER AND ERIC LARSON. YOU JUST HEARD FROM ERIC LARSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE SAN DIEGO COUNTY FARM BUREAU. GARY BENDER IS A FARM ADVISOR EMERITUS FOR UC EXTENSION, HE'S IN SAN DIEGO AND HAS A SPECIALTY WHEN IT COMES TO AVOCADO GROVES. GARY, YOU MENTIONED THAT WHEN YOU CROSS POLLINATE THE HASS AVOCADOS, YOU DO IT WITH A [ INDISCERNIBLE ]. YOU CAN DO IT WITH WHAT WE CALL OPPOSITE FIRING TYPE IN IT HAS A B FIRE, HASS HAS AN A FLOWER. IT'S BEEN KNOWN IF YOU HAVE AN A NEAR A B YOU CAN INCREASE YOUR YIELD. BUT MOST PEOPLE SAY I CANNOT SELL THEM, THEY ARE ALMOST WORTHLESS. BECAUSE THEY DON'T TASTE AS GOOD AS THEM HASS? THEY ARE WATERY. YOU'RE ONLY PLANTING ONE OF THOSE TREES FOR EVERY, WHAT, NINE HASS? THAT MIDDLE TREE IS [ INDISCERNIBLE ] SO IT'S ACTUALLY EIGHT HASS. I THINK I HEARD YOU SAY AT ONE POINT THAT AFTER DISCOVERING WHAT YOU NOW KNOW ABOUT DENSE PLANTING, YOU SAID SOMETHING TO THE EFFECT THAT WE HAVE BEEN PLANTING AVOCADO TREES WRONG ALL THIS TIME. I THINK THAT WAS MAYBE A MISSTATEMENT BY ME, POSSIBLY A LITTLE BIT TOO EARLY BECAUSE I LIKE TO GET SOME MORE DATA ON THIS. ERIC IS RIGHT. A LOT OF THESE GROWERS ARE OLDER AND THEY CAN'T FEED JUST TEARING THEIR GROWTH DOWN AND REPLANTING ON HIGH DENSITY. SOME PEOPLE ACTUALLY GO INTO A LOWER DENSITY. FROM ALL SIDES, THEY START ROAMING AND THEN YOU CAN ACTUALLY GET THE SAME YIELD PER ACRE SOMETIMES, BUT WITH HALF THE TREES. OKAY, SO I ALSO TEACH CLASSES FOR NEW GROWERS. BUT ERIC SAID, YOU KNOW, THESE GUYS ARE TURNING THE WATER OFF BUT THEN THEY GO INTO THE MARKET A LOT OF TIMES IN SOMEBODY BUYS THEM, HERE'S A BUNCH OF NEW GROWERS THAT DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT IT AND THEY HAVE A VERY DISTRESSED GROWTH. I TRY TO TEACH THAT. NOW, ERIC SAID, ERIC, WHEN YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT THE COST OF DOING SOMETHING, LIKE WHAT GARY IS TALKING ABOUT, I ASSUME YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT THE COST OF JUST REPLANTING ALL OF YOUR TREES, RIGHT? EXACTLY. IT'S NOT JUST THAT. FIRST YOU GOT THE COST OF REMOVING THE OLD CLOVIS BECAUSE YOU GOT TO GET THOSE TREES AND STUMP SOUND, THEN YOU'VE GOT TO COME BACK AND REDO YOUR IRRIGATION SYSTEM BECAUSE YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE MORE TREES. NOW YOU'VE GOT TO BUY, WHAT, GARY, ABOUT 400 AVOCADO TREES PER ACRE. ABOUT 430. 430 TREES PER ACRE IS A HUGE EXPENSE PLUS THE EXPENSE OF PUTTING THEM IN. IT'S NOT A SMALL EXPENSE. SOMEONE HAS TO BE VERY SERIOUS ABOUT BEING IN THE AVOCADO BUSINESS LONG-TERM TO RECOUP THAT INVESTMENT. THAT'S RIGHT. NOW WE FIGURED OUT TO DO THAT, JUST THE TREES ALONE WOULD BE ABOUT 13,200 PER ACRE, AND THAT IS THE SAME COST IT PUTS THEM TO IN A VINEYARD. BUT, THAT IS NOT COMING IN KNOW, I'M NOT FIGURING OUT THE COST ON THAT. WELCOMING GARY, WHAT KIND OF REACTION HAVE YOU GOTTEN FROM LOCAL FARMERS? I SUPPOSE THEY WOULD LOOK AT YOU AND SAY THE SAME THING ERIC SAID. IT SOUNDS LIKE THAT WOULD BE AWFULLY EXPENSIVE. WHAT KIND OF REACTION ARE YOU GETTING? I AM GETTING SOME GUYS TRYING THIS. AND THEY HAVE GOT, ON THEIR 10 BY 10, SOME GUYS ARE IMPROVING YIELDS ALTHOUGH THEY START TO CROWD SO THE TRIAL OF DOING IT IS ACTUALLY PRUNING TRIAL. WE ARE TRYING TO DIFFERENT METHODS OF PRUNING TO KEEP THESE THINGS UNDER CONTROL BECAUSE THEY LOVE TO GROW AND IT'S HARD TO KEEP THEM UNDER CONTROL. ERIC, WHAT KIND OF LAND ARE AVOCADO TREES PLANTED ON? AVOCADO TREES DON'T MIND STEEP, ROCKY HILLSIDES THAT WE HAVE IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY. AND THAT WILL BE ANOTHER ISSUE WITH DENSE PLANTING. SOMETIMES THOSE CURRENT AVOCADO GROVES WILL NOT LEND THEMSELVES TO DENSE PLANTING BECAUSE SOMETIMES THE GROWERS HAVE ACTUALLY PLANTED AROUND THE ROCK. IT'S NOT LIKE A TYPICAL FLAT FARMLAND WHERE YOU CAN PLANT WHEREVER YOU WANT. THOSE ROCKY HILLSIDES, EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE GREAT FOR AVOCADOS, THERE COULD BE LIMITATIONS AS WELL. AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS SEGMENT, I SAID THAT SAN DIEGO IS THE AVOCADO CAPITAL OF THE UNITED STATES. GARY, DO YOU THINK WE WILL REMAIN THAT? IT IS SLOWLY GOING DOWN. AND WE ARE, I THINK, WHEN I STARTED BACK IN 1985, WE HAD OVER 50% OF THE AVOCADO PRODUCTION HERE AND I THINK ERIC MAY CORRECT ME ON THIS BUT I THINK IT'S AROUND 40 TO 45% RIGHT NOW. ABOUT 45% OF CALIFORNIA'S PRODUCTION. WE STILL HAVE THE MOST BECAUSE THE REST IS SPLIT BETWEEN RIVERSIDE COUNTY, SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, VENTURA COUNTY BUT WE STILL HAVE THE MOST AMONGST ALL THE COUNTIES. AND OBVIOUSLY WHAT YOU SAID, ERIC, IS A BIG CONCERN GOOD ABOUT OF THE AVOCADO GROWERS ARE GETTING QUITE OLD. DO YOU THINK IT'S POSSIBLE THAT WE WILL BE ABLE TO CONTINUE THIS GREAT TRADITION THAT WE HAVE IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY OF GROWING AVOCADOS? WELL I WANT TO BE OPTIMISTIC ABOUT IT. THIS IS A FANTASTIC PLACE TO GROW AVOCADOS AND THE CALIFORNIA AVOCADO AS A SOLD EARLIER IS HELD IN HIGH ESTEEM BY BUYERS, EVEN THOUGH THE MAJORITY OF AVOCADOS EATEN IN THIS COUNTRY ARE GROWN IN PLACES LIKE CHILE AND MEXICO. NONETHELESS, THE CALIFORNIA AVOCADO IS GREAT AND WE LIKE TO HAVE AGRICULTURE. WE HAVE TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO GET ANOTHER GENERATION OF FARMERS TO COME IN, AFFORD THE LAND, AFFORD THOSE PLANNING COST HIM BECOME THE NEXT GROUP OF AVOCADO GROWERS WHO WILL BE THERE FOR 20, 30, 40 YEARS. FINALLY, ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC? OH, YEAH. I'M OPTIMISTIC. ERIC IS RIGHT. IT'S A GREAT PLACE TO GROW AVOCADOS. THE WEATHER IS PERFECT FOR US. WE HAVE ALL THE INFRASTRUCTURE, PACKING HOUSES, TRANSPORTATION, LOCAL MARKETS THAT LIKE OUR CALIFORNIA AVOCADOS. IT IS JUST A SHAME THAT THE WATER PRICES ARE GOING UP. WE'RE JUST TRYING TO BOOST THE YIELD UP SO WE CAN PAY THE HIGH WATER PRICES. WE'VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT A NEW PLANTING METHOD, WHICH COULD HELP. SAN DIEGO COUNTY AVOCADO GROWERS STAY IN BUSINESS P MY GUESTS HAVE BEEN GARY BENDER, FARM ADVISOR EMERITUS WITH UC EXTENSION IN SAN DIEGO. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. AND, THANK YOU TO ERIC LARSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE SAN DIEGO COUNTY FARM BUREAU. THANKS, TOM.

Avocado farmers struggling with the drought and the high price of water in San Diego County may find relief with a new technique that is being tested in Escondido.

Hillsides once covered in avocado groves are now bare and 10,000 acres have been lost, according to the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

Farm adviser emeritus Gary Bender from University of California Cooperative Extension and Escondido farmer Nick Stehly are planting avocado trees with a new strategy: placing them closer together and keeping them smaller than usual by pruning them.

They say the initial results have been promising. The trees use less water and the high density planting method yielded nearly double the fruit, Bender said.

“Our trees are only 2 ½ and we got 13,000 pounds an acre,” Bender told KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday. “We’re just getting phenomenal production.”

Bender said they’re also using 60 percent of the water they once used.