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Avocado farmers have lighter crop amid drought

Issue Date: July 21, 2021
By Kevin Hecteman
The California Avocado Commission’s April survey of growers and handlers shows a projected 2021 harvest of about 265 million pounds. The 2020 crop came in at 375.5 million pounds.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

Avocado growers haven't been feeling the heat as much this year, but they sure have been feeling the lack of precipitation.

"We haven't had a severe heat wave or a severe couple days of heat, like we've had in the past couple of years," said Will Pidduck, who grows avocados and citrus in Ventura County. "So we've got that going for us."

However, he added: "We're just severely dry after going through a winter where we got barely 4 inches of rain. We started the season dry. You're almost playing catch-up all season."

Playing catch-up due to lack of rain has ramifications at harvesttime. Avocados are smaller in size. And the seasonal output is dramatically lower. Santa Ana winds that struck avocado-growing regions in January also have been a factor.

Ken Melban, vice president of industry affairs for the California Avocado Commission, said everyone has been dealing with the effects of low rainfall totals over the past few years.

"Growers who have groundwater are typically in a stronger position, and generally speaking, growers in the south are dependent on district water, so they really feel the impacts from low rainfall," Melban said.

Avocado farmers have a variety of ways to deal with water shortages, said Connor Huser, regional grower relations manager at Mission Produce in Oxnard.

"Growers are responding to the drought conditions in their particular areas by using various tools, such as crop-specific calculations, soil moisture sensors, plant stress sensors and local weather stations to implement informed irrigation scheduling," Huser said. "These tools, in conjunction with monitoring the physical appearance of the soil and trees, allow growers to obtain maximum yields with minimum water usage."

When the heat is on—as it was in mid-June and early July—the commission sends an advisory to growers "encouraging them to irrigate their trees in advance of the high temps and to provide daily pulses of irrigation to maintain the trees' water status," Melban said. "Growers can do significant pruning and/or stumping if they want to reduce the water to the trees, but beyond that, trees do need a minimum amount of water to maintain their health."

Rainfall and groundwater are all Pidduck has in Ventura County, and winter rain "helps recharge the groundwater," he said. "It helps push salts past the root zone so the tree starts the spring in a better place, and it helps size the fruit that's on the tree." Irrigation water doesn't do the same thing no matter how much is used, he noted.

The lack of rain forced Pidduck to fire up the irrigation systems early.

"If we had a normal rainfall season, we may not have to start irrigating until April," Pidduck said. "We were irrigating in December, November, January, February. It's a big difference, and the trees don't look as good as they usually do, because we didn't get that rainfall."

The end result: smaller fruit and a lighter harvest.

"I've already harvested everything, and we had a very light year this year," said Pidduck, who started around March and April and wrapped at the start of July. "Quality was fine, but the size was a lot smaller than normal, and that was completely due to lack of rainfall."

The ideal size is the 48—representing the number of avocados it would take to fill a carton—but this year, Pidduck said, "we were heavier in the 60s than we were in the 48s."

As for the markets, "we were looking in the $1.15-$1.25 range for a lot of stuff we picked, but we were so light on fruit as far as pounds per acre this season," he noted. In a good year, he'd have 15,000 to 20,000 pounds per acre, "and this year, we're looking at a couple of thousand pounds an acre."

The avocado market has remained stable this season with good demand, said Jan DeLyser, the avocado commission's vice president of marketing.

"Although the food-service channel continues to deal with challenges related to the pandemic, particularly with labor, we have seen many of our customers working to recover," DeLyser said. "We have been pleased with the promotional activity this season with food-service operators calling out the California origin. Retail demand for California avocados has been strong as well."

The California Avocado Commission's April projection, based on grower and handler surveys, forecast a harvest of 265 million pounds this season, compared to 375.5 million pounds last year. As of the week ending July 11, 190.6 million pounds of avocados have been harvested in the season that officially began Nov. 1, according to commission figures.

California was home to 47,000 acres of avocado groves in the 2018-2019 crop year, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The top two avocado-producing counties remain Ventura and San Diego; Ventura County had 16,491 acres of avocado groves in 2019, while San Diego had 14,946 acres, according to the 2019 county crop reports.

Avocado farmers and packers are "hoping for a milder end to the summer months, followed by plentiful winter rains and low winds," Huser said.

Meanwhile, Melban said, "growers continue to look for opportunities to improve their water use efficiencies through technologies that ensure they are optimizing their water use in time of day, irrigation set duration," and delivery systems such as microsprinklers.

Huser said these methods can help growers get the most out of the water they can get.

"Pressure-compensating mini sprinklers, or drippers, installed in conjunction with pressure regulating risers or field valves help maximize distribution uniformity, thus saving valuable irrigation water," Huser said. "Variable frequency pump drives are encouraged to match block demand needs with optimal electrical output to limit energy use."

There's one problem that hasn't yet been solved.

"Trees still need water to grow and produce fruit," Melban said. "We haven't found a way around that just yet."

(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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