Be good and be lucky

The family plants 10 to 15 new acres of avocados every year, on 20-by-20-foot spacings that will be thinned in later years.
Photos by Don Dale.

They say a key ingredient to success is to be good at what you do, but it’s even better to be lucky. It’s also said you make your own luck, and that’s certainly the case at Cole Limited in Santa Paula, Calif. The Cole family went into avocados in 1970, has increased acreage ever since and is expanding that to this day.

With avocados being one of the American fruit crops that has been making good money in recent years, and with national consumption growing steadily, the Cole family keeps making its own luck by the truckload. Currently growing 475 acres of the fruit after a recent purchase of a nearby grove, and planting new acreage every year, they are one of the largest growers in the country—and expansion well into the future is part of their plan.

Cole Limited is a partnership of Lee Cole, his wife Jeanette, son Guy and daughter Suzanne. Cole, who since 1998 has also been chairman and president of Calavo Growers, Inc., a huge avocado marketing group, bought 80 acres of land in Santa Paula in 1969 and planted his first 10 acres of avocados a year later. He worked for the Safeway supermarket chain at the time and his goal was to create a farm for his family to grow up on. He selected avocados because of their promise and because this valley north of Los Angeles had the perfect climate for them.

“The true plan was to just get enough avocados to make a good living,” Lee says, and that goal has long since been accomplished. Now his son Guy works as ranch manager and Suzanne as office manager for the farm, which currently owns 3,800 acres of land, grows 150 acres of lemons and has a cattle operation in addition to the avocados. The total California crop has doubled to some 60,000 acres in the last 40 years.

As president of Calavo, Cole has overseen record profits for the publicly traded company’s avocado growers in recent years, and says the national market for the fruit is growing at a rate of 15 percent annually. Annual avocado consumption per person is just over 3 pounds, so the potential for growth as more people become informed about its use is very promising.

“They’re so healthy,” Suzanne says, and Americans are currently trending toward foods that are not only good for them, but also can be grown in a more natural manner. That certainly is true for avocados, which need few pesticides and are relatively low water users when grown on low-pressure irrigation. They ship well, store well and can be used in many healthy recipes. “That’s the trend in the U.S., anyway.”

The family plants at the rate of about 10 to 15 acres a year of new ground, in addition to the replants that must be done in existing groves. They have lots of south-facing sloped land, which is almost frost-free, and the valley has plentiful underground water they extract through two main wells. Abundant water gives them a budgeting advantage over growers in other parts of the state where water is expensive, and it is clean water that is easy to use in low-pressure irrigation. With the lemons acting as a diversification crop—the price on those has been good lately too—they feel confident in increasing acreage.

Trees are topped at about 12 years of age to keep them from forming a canopy that would shade fruit.

Guy says the methods the farm uses to plant new avocados have evolved somewhat, but it is basically the same operation as it was in the old days. They have tried and replaced many varieties, with the Fuerte being dominant at one time. Now, the only variety they plant is the Hass, which is the most popular fruit on the market and is a good shipper. Because of the plethora of rocks on most of their land, the Coles can’t use mechanical hole digging. Instead, their workers use the tried-and-true steel bar and shovel to dig a hole slightly larger than the sleeve of the young trees they plant.

The small trees are irrigated by drip irrigation for the first two or three years, and then the emitters are removed and replaced by micro sprinklers. They have been irrigating this way successfully for decades. No fertilizer is used for the first year, as most new plantings are on virgin ground that has plenty of nutrients. Once trees are mature, after about 10 or 12 years, the irrigation is changed to small low-pressure fan jets in order to spread the water over a larger surface area.

“The farther you can distribute that water, the better,” Guy says. A mature tree will get a 24-hour irrigation every two weeks at about 25 gallons per hour. N-P-K granular fertilizer will be broadcast within each micro sprinkler’s water pattern, with special attention being paid to potassium in years when the alternate-bearing trees have heavy loads.

Tree spacing is a big topic of discussion among avocado growers nowadays, with some trending toward close spacings that are heavily pruned over the years. The Coles are sticking to more traditional spacings, and they plant 100 trees per acre in a 20-by-20-foot pattern. After about 15 years, they remove every other tree within the row to allow the tree to spread out.

“The idea is to not let the trees be canopied. That accelerates the height of the tree,” Guy says. By not allowing the tree to spread out in a thick canopy, they grow a tree with lots of uniform growth that is open enough to allow sunlight into the center. Their trees may produce for 60 or 70 years, and at some point they may prune some branches out of the centers of the trees to open them up. Because avocados produce fruit on budwood that is one to five years old, he is experimenting with pruning methods that accentuate that.

In addition, the farm tops trees to keep them at about 15 to 17 feet maximum height where possible, which not only reduces the opportunity for the trees to canopy, it also keeps harvest costs down by reducing the height that workers must work on ladders in picking the fruit. These are usually older trees, but Guy is now topping some trees as they reach 10 to 12 years of age. He prefers to prune in January and February, avoiding summer pruning where possible to avoid the “skinny” trees that can result from the fast growth experienced during that period.

During harvest, all avocados are stripped from a tree at one time.

Ultimately, older trees are thinned still further until these huge old trees will be given a 40-by-40 spacing. At that spacing, Guy says, even the few old trees that have grown a dense, shading canopy will begin to return to a bushy shape. The farm also stumps less-productive trees, including large ones, to a height of 6 feet and grafts new Hass wood onto them. The resulting tree, whitewashed to prevent sunburn, will be thriving and producing quality avocados in two years.

Avocado trees are so hardy and well-adapted to this area that very little in the way of insecticides is needed. Guy sprays no insecticides some years, but in years when mites and thrips build up he may make one chemical application. Because of the heavy leaf litter on the grove floors under the trees, and the lack of irrigation water between trees, no herbicides are generally needed along the rows. When weeds build up between rows due to rainfall, a small Herbie micro-spray rig is used by workers walking the rows. This may be needed three or four times a year. One reason drip emitters are used on new trees is to reduce the wetted area where weeds will crop up.

One pest that persists in the loose soil of the farm is the gopher. Guy has seen even large trees girdled by the pests, which come in from adjacent native land, and has had to start a control program.

The Cole family, from left, Guy, Suzanne and Lee, are still bullish on avocados after 40 years of growing them.

The Coles have some Bacon variety trees left over, and those are harvested in the winter. Since the Hass trees are harvested from March to October, that gives them the chance to pick fruit year-round. The farm’s five full-time workers do some of the winter harvesting, but during the Hass harvest they hire extra crew. They have found reliable crews that they use year after year, focusing the harvest from July to October as much as possible to hit premium prices.

“We pick our younger trees first. They have a lot more fruit, typically,” Guy says. Crews strip each tree of all fruit as they go, rather than taking only the largest fruit and coming back for another pass. They have found that the small fruit tends to not get much bigger if they leave it on the tree.

The Coles will continue to make their own luck by planting more avocado trees. With people eating more and more avocados, and market share being still low, there is tremendous upside in this philosophy.

“Right now there’s a very good market, and looking into the future,” says Cole.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.