2018 heat reduces volume of 2019 avocado crop


Issue Date: June 5, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Charley Wolk examines a tree in his avocado grove in Fallbrook. Wolk says he usually aims to finish harvesting the groves he manages by Independence Day, but this year looked as though he’d be done by the end of May. California’s 2019 avocado crop is estimated to be 175 million pounds, according to the California Avocado Commission, a steep drop from 2018. Wolk and others attribute the decline to the intense heat wave California suffered last July, which caused stressed-out trees to drop much of their fruit.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Del Rey Avocado Co. employees pack fruit at the company’s Fallbrook packinghouse. Del Rey is seeing a boost in larger avocados.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

Fruit sizes and prices look good for California avocados, but an intense heat wave last July took a steep toll on crop volumes.

"My objective, pretty consistently every year, is to be finished by the Fourth of July," Fallbrook grower and grove manager Charley Wolk said. "Except for one grove, I'm finished now. That gives you some idea of how much smaller that crop is."

Early estimates put the 2019 harvest at 175 million pounds, said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission in Irvine. That's down considerably from 337.8 million pounds in the 2017-18 crop year.

"We started in basically early April with volume shipments, and we're looking at continuing really into September, which is a longer period of time than we thought we were going to be in the marketplace originally," DeLyser said.

This past winter's abundance of rain has been a blessing for avocado growers.

"The wonderful thing has been the increase in rain created very nice sizing this year on the fruit," said Jessica Hunter, vice president of production at Del Rey Avocado Co., a grower, packer and shipper in Fallbrook. "We've been able to provide larger sizes to the clients and the different retailers, meaning ultimately that's more pounds for the grower."

Wolk sees an economic advantage to the wet winter, noting that water constitutes about 75% of an avocado grower's expenses, and abundant rainfall meant growers didn't have to irrigate as often.

"For the small groves, when you have a four-digit-per-month water bill, it's a quick 10 grand they saved in the winter," he said. "For the bigger groves, where they have five-digit water bills, they probably saved over $100,000."

Another advantage was that the rains leached salt out of the soil.

"We haven't had a truly leaching rain for a long time," Wolk added. "You can see the advantage of leaching that salt out on the condition of the trees."

Avocado growers will often engage in size picking, with harvest crews taking the larger avocados and leaving smaller ones to grow.

"This year, we had less size picking due to the volume on growers' farms," Hunter said. "We did have size picking go on, but there's a higher percentage of growers that just went in for one-time picks starting mid-April."

The 48 remains the ideal size, but larger avocados are commanding shelf space.

"The 40 size, we hope, at least is 10 percent of our crop, but this year is probably closer to 15 to 20 (percent)," Hunter said. "That's because of the rains. We've had excellent sizing and quality."

The numbers refer to the number of avocados needed to fill a 25-pound box.

At the other end of the scale, 84s are gaining traction as single-serving avocados. One farm in San Luis Obispo County sells them by the half-dozen under the name "Gator Eggs."

Hunter said retailers now will often set up multiple avocado displays with different sizes, as well as conventional and organic fruit.

"It really has been nice for the grower, because all their fruit is demanded now," Hunter said. "There used to be a struggle on certain sizes at certain times of year, and there's much more versatility with the consumers and the retailers to now benefit the growers."

While Hass avocados still rule the marketplace—they represent 96 percent of California's production, DeLyser said—other varieties are making inroads.

Hunter said she looks forward to Reed avocado season; the larger, rounder avocado should hit the market this month.

"Del Rey's been carrying Reeds for years, and the traction on those in the last five to eight years has been growing dramatically from the retailers," Hunter said.

Del Rey also is taking on GEM avocados this year. The GEM is similar to the Hass but with a later harvest time and market window.

"This year is our first year handling the GEMs," Hunter said. "There is a lot of acreage going in in California, so that means that the marketplace will be exposed to GEMs on a more common basis."

DeLyser said interest in non-Hass varieties stems from retailers looking to differentiate themselves.

"The Hass has been such a stellar performer that it's hard to move away from that," DeLyser said, "and yet I think we're going to see increased production in those other varieties."

Organic avocados are gaining ground; at present they constitute 30% of Del Rey's business and 10% of the industry as a whole, according to Hunter and to Wayne Brydon, Del Rey's grower manager.

"The biggest trend we're seeing is that a larger variety of retailers are interested in carrying both organic and conventional," Hunter said.

"The mentality at one time was, well, if you go organic, you're going to lose production and quality," Brydon said. "But the know-how and the availability of materials have allowed us to be evenly successful in terms of production quality."

As with most farmers, avocado growers are severely shorthanded. Hunter said employee availability is down 30 percent this season.

"It looks like we have enough labor to max out at 10 million pounds a week," Brydon said. "We don't think we can exceed that."

Wolk said the situation won't improve until political leaders take action.

"If you want to eat food that's produced in the United States," Wolk said, "the government's got to pay attention to the immigration laws."

As the 2019 harvest progresses, some trees in San Diego County have begun setting fruit that will become the 2020 crop.

At his grove in Fallbrook, Wolk noted small avocados just beginning to emerge. He estimated the trees were running about a month behind due to the cool, wet spring.

"There's still a lot of flower left," Wolk said. "If we don't have a serious weather event, we should have a much bigger crop next year."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

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