Avocado farmers see smaller crop amid high prices
By Kevin Hecteman
A big jump in prices early in the season helped lead to a smaller haul, tonnagewise, for California avocado farmers this year.
So did a shortage of precipitation, said Will Pidduck, who grows avocados and lemons in Ventura County.
“Our crop was a moderately sized crop,” Pidduck said. “It would have been a lot better if we would have had a decent amount of rainfall, which helps us size our fruit.”
“That being said, the prices were good,” he added. “They stayed relatively good—in some cases, great—for a lot of the season, and avocados really saved our bacon this year with regards to lemon prices being what they are.”
April Aymami, industry affairs director at the California Avocado Commission, said the state’s 2022 harvest is all but done, and it appears the year will end with 270 million pounds of avocados. The commission’s preseason estimate was 306 million pounds, revised to 286 million after a midseason survey of growers and handlers.
“A large part of that is, our season started much earlier than initially anticipated due to the very favorable market conditions,” caused by supply issues that drove prices up, she said.
“It really incentivized growers to harvest fruit at smaller sizes than they normally would in February, March,” Aymami said. “Normally, you would size-pick and get your 48s and larger off the tree in those early months, and let the rest of the fruit size up.” The 48—as in the number of avocados needed to fill a standard carton—is considered the ideal size.
“I think a large portion of the difference between the 306 (million) and the 270 (million) had to do with fruit that was harvested much smaller,” Aymami said.
Jennifer Anazawa, senior category manager at avocado grower-packer- shipper Mission Produce in Oxnard, said demand for the fruit remained resilient in the face of the U.S. inflationary environment.
“This demonstrates the strength of the category and continued establishment of the avocado as a household staple,” Anazawa said. “This also speaks to broader health and wellness trends underpinning the popularity of avocados.”
Pidduck is among the farmers who jumped on the early-season market opportunity. “We went in and we just stripped the crop off the trees when the price was high enough that it warranted it,” he said. “Then we didn’t have to worry about a heat wave in July potentially dropping a crop on the ground.”
He and others, however, did worry about another heat wave—the record-setting hot spell that baked most of the state last week. Pidduck said temperatures reached 107 to 108 degrees in his neighborhood, with some reports of 112 degrees.
“A lot of the new-leaf growth on the avocado trees is just burnt,” Pidduck said. “I mean, just crispy and brown or black.” Fruit drop is likely, as a heat-stressed tree “just lets go of what it doesn’t need to support,” he added.
“We’ve been putting on water where we can put on water, but when it gets so hot, there’s only so much you can do,” Pidduck said.
Aymami said the commission will start checking with farmers throughout avocado country—mainly the coast from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties—about a week after the heat wave dissipates, as this is when trees will start dropping fruit if they’re going to. After that, she added, “you wait another month to see if the fruit continues to grow, or if the heat did so much damage that maybe it didn’t drop the fruit yet, but it’s not growing.”
Avocados prefer moderate climates with growing temperatures of less than 90 degrees, said Gabe Filipe, senior director of California sourcing and farming at Mission Produce. Trees are more likely to be stressed when the thermometer hits triple digits.
To deal with the heat, along with the drought and the rising cost of inputs, avocado farmers are investing in technology that measures actual tree demand.
“By using a combination of remote weather stations, soil moisture probes and plant stress monitoring devices, growers can make educated cultural decisions,” Filipe said. “Automated pumping systems allow growers to deliver precise amounts of irrigation water to the trees, which helps maximize water resources.”
Ventura County is the state’s largest avocado producer, with 19,852 acres in production, according to a 2021 LandIQ survey prepared for the Avocado Commission. Farmers in the county depend on groundwater and local reservoirs.
“If we don’t get normal to above-average rainfall for multiple years in a row, we’re in trouble,” Pidduck said.
Two years ago, he noted, his farm registered only 4 to 5 inches of rain for the entire winter. “You can’t survive on that,” Pidduck said. “At least this last winter we were up. I think I was around 14 inches or so, which was much better than 4, but I need some of those winters where we tap into those atmospheric rivers and really start to replenish our groundwater and our local reservoirs.”
Besides, Pidduck noted, sprinklers can’t really replace Mother Nature for nourishing avocados on the tree.
“When we’re putting on irrigation water, we’re also putting on salts,” Pidduck said. “That’s just the nature of irrigation water for the most part.” Winter rains, he added, are “very pure water. They flush those salts out of the soil in the fall and the winter.”
Without those rains, he said, the year begins with higher salt levels, and “the avocados’ root system has to compete with the salts to get nutrients and whatever else it needs.”
The early outlook for 2023 calls for about the same crop size as this year, Aymami said; the commission will meet in December to develop a firmer number.
Avocados tend to be an alternate-bearing crop—the fruit takes the better part of two years to develop from blossoming to harvest—but how much of a factor this is varies widely.
“The one thing we are hearing from the field is that not all growers in one area are having an ‘on’ crop or an ‘off’ crop,” Aymami said. “Years and years ago, you’d see a whole county was on or off, and in recent years, we’ve really seen that it is grove by grove, grower by grower—sometimes it’s even block by block.”
Pidduck thinks his 2023 crop will be off.
“I don’t think the weather really cooperated during bloom for us this year,” he said. “It may have been too cool during the peak bloom times.” He brings in bees to help pollinate his crop during peak bloom time in spring, but how much work they do depends on the temperature, he noted.
“If you have a lot of cool, foggy days, you don’t have a lot of bee activity, and you don’t see the fruit set like you would in a warmer spring,” Pidduck said.
All of that makes formulating a crop estimate a dicey proposition, Aymami said.
“It’s just real spotty,” she said. “It makes crop estimating a bit challenging when you’ve got 3,000 growers and you’re trying to figure out what’s on the tree, and what that translates to industrywide.”
(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)