Avocado demand for 2011-12 crop heartens growers

Issue Date: June 6, 2012
By Steve Adler
A harvester selects mature avocados at a San Diego County grove as grower Charley Wolk looks on.
Photo/Casey Anderson
Avocado grower Charley Wolk of Fallbrook sees a bright future for California avocado farmers.
Photo/Casey Anderson

After harvesting 535 million pounds of avocados in 2009-10 and then dropping to 300 million-plus pounds in 2010-11, California growers are striving for a happy medium this season, with a projected crop size approaching 400 million pounds.

This season's crop is an ideal size for marketing, says Tom Bellamore, president of the California Avocado Commission, because it will make fresh California avocados available to consumers throughout an extended market window that lasts from April through most of September.

Returns have been very strong in recent years, Bellamore said, as demand exceeds production.

"There is nice quality this year, as well as generally good sizing. So we are very optimistic about how growers might fare in terms of farmgate returns," he said. "Last year's farmgate value for avocados broke all records and we are hopeful that this will continue this year. Farmgate value for the crop overall was $460 million."

Nearly 100 percent of California avocados go to the fresh market, with most to the retail trade. The food-service sector takes about one-third of the crop. Bellamore said processed avocados for such products as guacamole dip are sourced from other countries, primarily Mexico.

The California avocado harvest started several weeks later than usual, primarily because of cooler weather. Avocado grower Charley Wolk of Fallbrook, a member of the avocado commission board of directors, said growers in the southern districts of San Diego and Riverside counties typically begin harvesting shortly after the Super Bowl in February—but not this year.

"After the Super Bowl, there is usually a slow ramp up of the California crop, but there was hardly any movement this year. By early May, I had only moved about 5 percent of the crop, but now things are picking up," he said. "Prices are strengthening slowly. Every day they go up a penny or two cents. Packers who are quoting a range might leave the upper end unchanged but raise the lower end, which to me is a strengthening."

Farther north in Ventura County, avocado grower Leslie Leavens Crowe reported that she is seeing a real mixed bag in her orchards, with some avocado trees having nice fruit set and others with virtually no crop. The situation is even worse in the family's Monterey County groves, she said.

"This year's crop is better than last year, but the trees are still recovering from the huge crop they produced two years ago, so we are by no means up to full production that we would like to be seeing," she said. "We have some areas that have OK production, and some areas that are blank."

She said cool weather during bloom last spring appeared to have affected the crop.

"Monterey is just about as blank this year as it was last year. Last year was dismal and this year it is a disaster. So we are just hopeful for next year," she said.

Both Wolk and Leavens Crowe expressed concern about labor shortages. Leavens Crowe said the labor force in Ventura County is so tight that her farm has shifted crews from avocados to lemons in order to harvest the vulnerable citrus more quickly.

"We have deferred some of our pruning in avocados and are using all of the labor that we can get to harvest lemons. We are going slowly to the avocados, just size-picking as the fruit reaches good size. With the lemons, at this point in the season, the fruit needs to come off the trees now, so we are definitely deferring some projects so that we can maximize the amount of labor that we have available for harvesting the lemons," she said.

Wolk said growers who focus primarily on avocados are in a better situation with labor because avocados can be left on the tree to be picked later.

"Unlike stone fruit, one of the advantages of this crop is that we growers can store the fruit on the tree. We actually have mature fruit in January and in September and October, which creates a huge window. For all practical purposes, the Hass avocado tree always has some fruit," he said.

Bellamore said he is also keeping a close eye on the labor situation. The avocado commission has joined a broader coalition of agricultural organizations urging Congress and the president to enact immigration reform that will ensure an adequate supply of farm employees.

"We are hearing more and more from growers who are having difficulty filling out their work crews, particularly to harvest over a period of time," he said. "We are concerned about labor availability. It is an issue for us as well as other agricultural crops."

For San Diego County avocado growers in particular, the high cost and limited availability of water also raises concerns.

"Water down here is very expensive," Wolk said. "We conserve as much as we can."

Drought conditions in 2008 and 2009 resulted in 30 percent cutbacks in water deliveries in San Diego County, prompting avocado growers to stump large sections of their orchards. Those trees are slowly starting to return to production. But some growers went out of the avocado business, he said.

Despite all of the challenges, Wolk said there is great optimism among avocado growers.

"I think the avocado sector in California is healthy. There are many growers who are apprehensive, mostly over the price of water, but if they make a commitment to aggressively farm, they can be very successful. The hesitancy comes from the fact that the things they need to do all cost money. They have to have confidence in the future," he said.

"We sell about 1.4 billion pounds of avocados in the United States every year and we have demand for 2 billion pounds. We simply cannot produce that many avocados. And that is just the U.S. market; if you look at the world market, the demand for avocados worldwide is such that I can't get my brain to comprehend it," Wolk said.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.