Avocado sales at retailers recover from initial drop

Issue Date: May 13, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman
After what avocado marketers describe as a couple of “very stressful” weeks at the start of stay-at-home orders, retail sales of the fruit began to recover, helping compensate for loss of sales to restaurants and other food-service customers.
Photo/Casey Anderson

After getting knocked sideways at the onset of the COVID-19 emergency, the California avocado business has largely picked itself up, dusted itself off and resumed steady progress to a voluminous harvest.

Al Stehly, who grows avocados in San Diego County, said the conventional avocado market struggled with the lack of food-service markets, but noted, "I'm fairly surprised at how much demand there was early on and how much there still is." Remembering the growers of other crops that have been struggling, he added, "I hope that people buy more lettuce and other fruits and vegetables to go with their avocados."

After a pandemic-induced plunge in harvest numbers in late March, California farmers brought in nearly 17 million pounds of avocados the first couple of weeks of April, well above projections of 10 million to 12 million pounds.

"There was a couple of weeks on the front end of the COVID-19 pandemic situation that were very stressful for the folks selling the avocados," said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission.

Retail, she added, "went (into) panic mode, then dipped for a week or two, and then has been performing amazingly well."

Retail avocado sales were up 20% year over year through the first month of shelter-in-place orders, according to a report from RaboResearch, compensating for the loss of food-service sales. Food service remains relevant, the report noted, because it takes most Grade 2 avocados.

DeLyser said the commission estimates a harvest of 369 million pounds for 2020, well above 216.6 million the previous season. Since the official start of the 2020 season Nov. 1, the state's avocado farmers have marketed 122.7 million pounds of fruit.

Connor Huser, grower relations representative at Mission Produce in Oxnard, estimates he's running ahead of schedule compared to preseason harvest estimates.

"Pricing did come off quite a bit from where it was pre-corona," Huser said, but now "growers are happy with it, considering what could have happened."

California farmers, he noted, were up against import pressure—especially from Mexico—and uncertain demand.

"That could have boded extremely poorly for pricing," Huser said. "Demand's been pretty good and we've been able to move through the fruit, and it's kept the price at what's historically a very strong price."

A conventional carton of 48s—meaning 48 avocados in a 25-lb. carton—was selling for $1.22 to $1.30 per pound as of May 6, according to the California Avocado Society. Organic 48s were earning $1.98 to $2.08.

Stehly said the organic market has been strong. Very little organic avocado production goes to food service, he noted, with the exception of specialty restaurants featuring all-organic menus.

An anticipated early-season heat wave of 90 to 95 degrees in San Diego County was not expected to be detrimental to the crop, Stehly said; in fact, it has an upside.

"It's actually good to have these warm, clear mornings, because the bees get out early, they get a full day's work, as opposed to a foggy morning where they don't start until 9 or 10," he said.

Those bees are pollinating the early stages of the 2021 crop, and Stehly said he finds the signs encouraging.

"We're in a heavy bloom right now, which portends well for next year," he said. "We don't know how much that fruit will set, but it's always good to see a lot of flower out there."

Stehly added his current crops haven't had any pest problems that have affected the fruit, and "the quality of the fruit that we've been sending to the packinghouse has been exceptional."

DeLyser said the 2020 season should keep on rolling into the fall.

"We anticipate that we'll have fruit into September, and quite possibly into October," depending on demand, she said. "Food service sounds as though it's going to be coming back here over the next couple of months—not the way it was, but in the new norm, as they say."

Enhanced safety in the grove and the packinghouse also is part of that new normal.

"We're full steam ahead, packing six days a week," Huser said. "We're taking every precautionary measure possible to keep our employees and our products safe."

That includes wearing masks and restricting movement in the building to one's own department, he noted.

In the grove, Stehly said core groups of pickers work together.

"They don't bring somebody else into their crew that would potentially expose them at work or on the way to work," he said.

DeLyser said the commission has reworked its promotional efforts, scrapping billboards and focusing on streaming services and social media.

"People were going to be eating at home more," she said, so the commission wanted to "try to be helpful and give them ideas and solutions."

DeLyser said she's optimistic about the remainder of the season and the resiliency of the crop.

"Knock on wood," she said, "avocados have held up fairly well during a really pretty dire circumstance."

(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.




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