Hand Grown in California” more than a slogan”””

While the California avocado is a native American plant, it hasn’t always been the cash crop it is today. It wasn’t until the late ’70s that the market potential really started to be noticed. As interest in avocados as a healthful fruit picked up, imports started to come into the U.S. For the last 25 years, some have said that the market for California avocados is not going to be around. That appears to be an unfounded concern, especially if the growers and the CAC continue to do their jobs of growing and marketing top-quality fruit. California produces about 90 percent of the U.S. avocado crop, 34 percent of that in San Diego County. The last two seasons have shown record-breaking sales. The 2010-11 crop value ($460,209,682) was more than 14 percent higher than the previous year’s record. That record was 6 percent higher than the next highest record set in 2003-04. While the production volume for 2010-11 was only about 56 percent of the previous year’s, the price per pound was double.

The rolling hills along California’s coast provide excellent conditions for growing 90 percent of the U.S. avocado crop.

There are now about 5,000 avocado growers in California, down from a high of about 6,500. The average grove size is 10 acres. The drop in the number of growers and acres is attributable to a variety of factors. Like everything else, the economy has been a big aspect. Selling off for land development, retirements and aging trees are other parts of the equation. Water costs have also cut the number of growing acres. Alex MacLachlan, who grows on 16 acres near Bonsall, reports that numerous growers have “stumped” a lot of their trees to save on water costs. Stumping is the practice of cutting trees back to within a couple feet from the ground. It doesn’t kill the tree, but takes it out of production for three or four years and cuts down on expenses, especially water, while the grower decides the next step to survive.

Even so, there has been vast growth compared to the first figures published on the CAC website. In 1971-72, there were 19,039 acres that produced 51.7 million pounds of avocados. The crop value was $24,608,846 at a price per pound of $47.58. The average dollars per bearing acre were $1,293, with 2,715 pounds per bearing acre. For the last two record-breaking years the figures are as follows (2009-10 figures are in parentheses): Bearing acres, 52,158 (58,268); volume in millions of pounds, 302.5 (534.5); crop value, $460,209,682 ($402,770,893); price per pound, $152.10 ($75.35); average dollars per bearing acre, $8,823 ($6,912); and pounds per bearing acre, 5,800 (9,173).

Keys to growing the market

The CAC, which has been in existence since 1978, is responsible for marketing California avocados and providing information to help growers produce a top-quality crop. Every commercial avocado grower in California must register with the state, have their groves regularly inspected, and pay a portion of all sales to the CAC. The amount varies from year to year based on crop value and the commission’s budget. Grower Randy Axell, Rancho Rodoro near Santa Paula, says, “The CAC has done a wonderful job.” His grandfather started growing avocados commercially in the early ’50s. Axell really got into the business when he graduated from college in 1971, and he currently has 25 acres in production.

The CAC is constantly looking for new ways to reach out to the consumer and inform them of the benefits of California avocados. The website (www.avocado.org) has an area for consumers, one for retailers, one for food service and one for growers. The consumer section includes a grove tour video, what’s new, nutrition information, recipes and news. One popular section is “Meet the Growers,” where 32 California growers are featured with a picture, a map to their grove, the varieties they grow and a little about their history and involvement in avocado growing. They also provide their own personal favorite recipe using avocados. (This writer got hungry just browsing the site.)

This 50-year-old avocado grove is still producing excellent crops.

The growers’ section includes the latest news, production research, cultural management tips, crop and market info, the marketing plan and links to further resources. Bellamore states, “We must continue to invest in the U.S. market. There is very little export, because it is the best market to sell, but it is not automatic.” Avocado consumption continues to grow, so growers are optimistic. Bellamore says, “We continue to look for the best marketing communications to get the message out.” Along those lines, he indicated that they were in the late stages of developing some exciting new ideas for coming years.

Besides the group efforts to market avocados, some growers are trying some direct marketing ideas. There is the usual marketing through farmers’ markets and on-farm stands. Some have tried online direct marketing. MacLachlan went the online path for a few years. Rising fuel costs became more of a factor, and he decided to go another route. Last August he opened a restaurant, California Avocado Grill, in downtown Escondido. He wanted to showcase the fruits of his labor. He says, “I figured a local centered business would help.” As of mid-April, he reports, “It’s going great.”

Bees are an integral part of the avocado industry.

Growing avocados

One unique fact about avocados that helps the grower and the market is that they can remain on the tree for extended periods of time. The key harvesting period for avocados extends from April through September. The crop year actually starts the first of November and extends into the following October. The grower has a lot of flexibility in deciding when to harvest. They may actually harvest three or four times a year. Price and quality drives the decision. A single tree can bear a crop for up to 70 years. A tree can produce up to 500 fruit or 200 pounds annually, while the average is about 150 fruits, around 60 pounds, per tree.

As with any crop, weather is a major factor. The prime growing area is along the coast from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. A late frost in the hills north of L.A. can nip the blossoms emerging for the following year’s crop. As Axell says, “Having gorgeous trees doesn’t necessarily mean gorgeous crops.” He invested in frost control, and he feels that it has been a good investment. He says, “It is kind of like insurance, sometimes it pays off.”

Another fact about avocados is that they are an alternate year bearing crop. Any given tree bears heavy one year and light the next. Bellamore states, “A variety of factors across the growing area can even out the overall year-to-year crops.”

The CAC; University of California, Riverside, Cooperative Extension Service, management companies; and individual growers are continually looking for ways to improve productivity and communicate new findings. There are over 500 varieties of avocado, but only seven varieties are grown commercially in California. One variety, Hass, accounts for about 95 percent of the crop. Research continues to look for new varieties, but marketing will also have to be considered when selecting new varieties for commercial production. Another reason to look at new varieties is to find some that would be more cold hardy and flower later. California’s central valley could be another prime growing area because of the nice flat land and water prices being relatively low. The problem is it is a little too cold for current commercial varieties. Finding rot-resistant rootstocks is another important part of plant research.

Axell says, “The biggest change I’ve seen over the years is pruning. We used to just let the tree grow. Now we prune at least every other year.” Pruning is done to improve fruit size, to make fruit more accessible for picking, and for general tree health. Bellamore says, “Handpicking each fruit from a 30-foot tree can be a challenge. Harvesting from a 12-foot tree is more cost-effective.”

According to Bellamore, high-density planting is gaining a lot of interest. Ten years ago, most groves had 100 trees per acre planted on 20-by-20-foot spacing. They are now planting many more trees per acre. Growers are rejuvenating older groves by cutting back old trees, removing some and interplanting new trees.

As part of the “Hand Grown in California” concept, Axell says, “It is very important to listen to your grove. You can’t just drive by; you need to be involved with the growing all the time to see what’s going on. It takes a lot of TLC and attention to detail.”

The author is a longtime contributor to Growing based in Council Bluffs, Iowa.