Avocado crop may be lightest in 20 years
San Diego County farmer Burnet Wohlford says the 2009 avocado crop will be smaller due to a variety of reasons. Smaller yields aren't confined to San Diego County. The avocado crop statewide may turn out to be one of the smallest in history.
Under the lush canopy of avocado tress growing in Southern California, farmers are studying the fruit-bearing branches and preparing for disappointment. The valuable fruit they count on for income is very sparse.
Observers say it will be the smallest crop in 20 years and possibly one of the smallest in state history.
The reasons for the small crop are many. Experts say a hard freeze in January 2007, wildfires later that year, a 30 percent water cutback, inclement weather at bloom, poor pollination, pest infestations and quarantines, and the trees' tendency to bear alternately heavy and light crops have now taken their toll.
Walking one of the many avocado groves he manages, Burnet Wohlford of Heritage Ranch Management in Escondido said the yield on the 2009 avocado crop will definitely be lighter. In his own groves and those he manages for others, he too cites a variety of reasons for the crop's paltry prospects.
"I'm seeing a lot of variation in fruit size from one grove to another," he said. "It depends on location."
He said during avocado bloom in April, temperatures reached 90 to 100 degrees for a couple of days and the flowers opened up, then it dropped by 30 degrees.
"After that it was hot again and then back to 60 degrees for several weeks," he explains. "The bees didn't work. The trees weren't pollinated."
California avocados are grown year-round and can have more than one crop on the trees at one time. A single California tree can produce up to 200 pounds of fresh avocados each year, about 500 pieces of fruit, although most average around 60 pounds or 150 pieces of fruit.
Given what growers are up against with the 2009 crop, Wohlford throws up his hands and just shakes his head when asked what he thinks the average will be in 2009. He says he does know the crop will be disappointingly small.
Wohlford, whose family has farmed in San Diego County since the late 1800s, said he also expects the smaller crop to have "a negative impact on labor needed for harvest. There'll be fewer jobs at harvest."
The combination of forces coming together to reduce yields for the 2009 avocado crop is highly unusual, experts say. In 2007 the crop was valued at about $251 million. At this point no one is venturing a guess about the value of the 2009 crop.
The California Avocado Commission said there has been a decline in avocado groves in the top avocado-producing region, San Diego County, in the past year.
In addition to the 30 percent cutback in irrigation water, which led farmers to cut some trees back to their stumps or pull them out altogether, there also are avocado acres damaged or destroyed by wildfire in 2007.
"We know that about 4,000 acres were burned by wildfires and we also know that about 4,000 acres have been stumped," said Guy Witney, California Avocado Commission director of industry affairs and production research. "We don't know how much overlap there is right now."
He said San Diego County had a total avocado planting of about 24,000 acres.
"Then we had a freeze in January 2007, fires that October and now irrigation water supplies have been cut by 30 percent. That translates directly into reduced acreage and fewer avocados. There's no way to distribute 30 percent less water to each tree. They just don't produce well with less, so 30 percent of the acreage has to come out," Witney said.
"It's very hard to tell what the extent of damage to the crop is and it's unclear how many acres have gone out of production," he said. "But we do know that we're faced with the smallest crop in the past 20 years."
He said the commission is expecting about a 215-million pound crop. For comparison, the statewide 2006 crop was 601 million pounds, the largest on record.
"Now we're looking at one of our smallest crops in the state's history in 2009, and that's if there are no further adverse weather conditions in the meantime," Witney said.
California is the leading producer of domestic avocados and home to about 90 percent of the nation's crop.
Most California avocados are harvested on 60,000 acres between San Luis Obispo and the Mexican border, by about 6,800 growers, but San Diego County, which in the past has produced as much as 60 percent of all California avocados, is the acknowledged avocado capital of the nation.
"This short crop will be good for those growers who have fruit," said Noel Stehly, whose family has farmed in San Diego County for more than 30 years. "But that probably won't mean higher prices for consumers. Mexico will be able to help fill the supply gap."
Stehly cited international marketing pressure as another vulnerability for the avocado crop.
"Once an international competitor gets a foothold here, it's hard to get that market share back for our growers. What we may see happen is that California fruit will stay a lot more local," he said. "Mexico may then take more of the market in the Eastern United States, where they already have a big foothold."
It's too soon to tell how the small crop and market demand plays out, Stehly said.
"While the value of the fruit may end up being higher, the smaller crop means a smaller return," he said. "Growers may end up making a lot less money," because farmers won't have much fruit to sell at the higher price.
Stehly said avocado growers have done "an incredible job of conserving water and have met the mandated cuts, and then some." But, he said, "the problem is there's just a lot more conservation that needs to be done by everyone. There's a lot less water coming out of the delta. We've got a small crop for 2009, but in the future, when the crops will be bigger, we'll still be stuck figuring out how to live with less water."
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.