Avocado farmers deal with fluctuating sales, heat wave

Issue Date: September 23, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman
Temperatures as high as 118 degrees during the Labor Day weekend prompted some avocado trees to drop fruit.
Photo/Ben Faber

Add avocados to the list of passengers on this Mr. Toad's Wild Ride of a growing season featuring pandemic-induced market disruptions and a late-season heat wave.

"What a crazy year," said Tom Bellamore, president of the California Avocado Commission in Irvine.

The 2019-20 California avocado season was expected to be a strong one, with farmers projected to exceed the commission's volume estimate of 373 million pounds.

"The way things are going, it looks like the harvest is going to continue late into the season," Bellamore said. "We're thinking we may well end up above that 373"—possibly as high as 390 million pounds, he added.

That would be a steep rise from the 2018-19 season, when California avocado farmers produced 216.6 million pounds of fruit, according to commission figures.

The late finish to the 2020 season follows an early start, Bellamore said, noting that "things were looking pretty good" in February and March, with "fairly strong" pricing.

On March 6, a carton of 48s, considered the ideal size, sold for $54.25 to $55.25, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As of Sept. 18, the same carton sold for $34.35 to $35.25, according to USDA.

The first wave of pandemic-related shelter-in-place orders upended food-service markets, especially for smaller avocados, Bellamore said.

"That early momentum we had sort of stalled, and then when we picked it up again, not only did we face the recovering food-service sector and the issues there, but by that time, Mexico was starting to ramp up their volumes," he said.

Retail sales have been relatively strong, he added.

"The summer months were not as strong as I think the growers hoped in terms of returns," Bellamore said. "That's still the situation now."

Still, Ventura County farmer Will Pidduck said he gives thanks for his avocado bounty.

"The 2020 season was a decent season, considering we're also citrus growers," Pidduck said. "Our lemon market was horrible due to COVID. The avocados were our shining light and our saving grace this year."

Pidduck said his avocados moved into a good market, even with pandemic-induced restrictions.

"The movement for avocados was still excellent," he said. "That says to me that people staying at home and cooking at home were still using avocados and buying avocados at the supermarkets."

Late in the season, a Labor Day heat wave hit California, sending temperatures well into the triple digits. Pidduck said his ranches saw 115-116 degrees during that weekend, "which for a subtropical crop is quite high."

The heat wave could take a toll on next season's crop.

Sonia Rios, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Riverside and San Diego counties, said early reports predict approximately 50 million pounds of fruit loss, but "it may still be weeks before the true numbers can be calculated."

Rios said the 2020 heat wave appeared less severe than the one that struck around Independence Day 2018.

"Growers were more prepared and more proactive this time around," she said, "whereas last time it caught everyone off guard."

Pidduck, who farms in Ventura, Saticoy and Fillmore, irrigated his trees ahead of time, and targeted the hottest areas when the heat arrived.

"On our ranch in Fillmore, we had water going during that heat wave, whereas on our ranch in Ventura, which was a little bit milder, it wasn't as critical of an issue," he said.

Allen King, who grows avocados in Fillmore, reported temperatures hitting 116-118 degrees in his grove that weekend.

"Two and three days before the projected highest heat, we did a deep irrigation," King said. "The trees were well hydrated."

Pidduck said so far, he hasn't seen a lot of next year's crop dropping to the ground because of the heat, and King said it took a few days for the effects to show up in his trees.

"It took about a week before fruit started to drop," King said.

Ben Faber, a UCCE farm advisor in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, called advance irrigation crucial.

"You need to start the irrigation water at least two days in advance of the heat wave to keep transpiration going, so that the trees can cool themselves off," Faber said. "I think I've seen less leaf damage this year than I saw in the last two summers."

Leaf damage happens when the stomata—which vent water vapor from the leaf to the atmosphere—shut down.

"When the stomata shut, there's no transpiration," Faber said. "There's no heat removal. So the leaf just heats up and basically burns. If you get water into the tree prior to the heat wave, you hydrate the tree; it can then continue to transpire and cool itself."

Once the heat wave arrives, the tree goes to protecting its internal core, he added; exactly when this happens depends on humidity and what the tree has been through before the heat wave.

"This is one of the problems we had," Faber said. "It was a cool summer, cool summer, cool summer—BANG! Whereas if you start going warm, warmer, warmer, the tree kind of adapts."

He recommended growers not disturb dead leaves on avocado trees.

"Actually, the dead leaves protect the tree," Faber said. "You want to keep those leaves there as long as possible. The dead leaves themselves act as a sunblock."

He strongly recommended restricting avocado irrigation in the aftermath of a heat wave, to avoid issues with the avocado root rot Phytophthora.

The 2020-21 harvest is likely to be smaller, but not by much, Bellamore said.

"We're thinking perhaps 325 million pounds," he said. "This is the time of year where we'll start to get a better handle on it, but we just had that heat spell."

The next few weeks, he added, "will tell us more about the effects of that."

(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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