Avocado crop will be smaller, growers confirm

Issue Date: April 19, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman
The California Avocado Commission estimates farmers will ship 200 million pounds of fruit this season—only about half of what they sold the previous year, in part due to the cyclical nature of avocado production. Farmers say this year’s wetter winter and other signs point to a larger crop in 2018.
Photo/Robert Benson

Those planning Cinco de Mayo parties might want to boost their guacamole budgets: Last fall, California avocado growers foresaw lower volumes for this year, and so far those predictions are bearing fruit.

"My crop is down quite a bit," said Paul Van Leer, who grows avocados near Gaviota along the Santa Barbara County coast, citing the impact of multiple drought years that put his trees "in a little bit of a shock situation" as salts and minerals built up in the soil.

This past winter, Van Leer said, 25-plus inches of rain fell.

"It's definitely leached all the salts and minerals out of our root zone," he said. "The trees are just starting to wake up. They're starting to bloom, they're starting to flush. They should be happy. Mind you, we had to stump a lot of trees, us personally, because of the lack of water availability."

As of April 11, a 48-count box of avocados was bringing $50.25 to $52.25 at the point of origin, according to latest figures from the California Avocado Commission, with farmers earning $1.80 to $1.88 per pound. In April 2016, growers were earning about 64 cents per pound, according to commission figures.

Avocado grower David Schwabauer of Moorpark confirmed avocado farmers are seeing good prices.

"The challenge is you don't have the volume of fruit that you did last year, so you hope that the increase in price is going to help compensate for the lack of volume," Schwabauer said.

Van Leer said he recognizes that, while the prices have risen for growers, they're not so favorable for grocery shoppers.

"I just know that they're going to be expensive in the store, and I'm hoping that the marketers are cognizant of that," Van Leer said. "If prices go too high, where the people going to the grocery stores will not pay for them, then that could be an issue."

In Fallbrook, drought affected Charley Wolk's trees in an indirect manner.

"Because of the drought, the Metropolitan Water District got no State Water Project water," said Wolk, who grows in northwestern San Diego County. "All the water we had was coming out of the Colorado River. Colorado River water is salty."

Wolk said he believes irrigating his groves with that salty water for several years contributed to this year's smaller yield. That made the winter rain a double blessing.

"The first thing it did is it allowed us to stop irrigating," Wolk said. "Depending on where the orchard was, and some other variables, we essentially didn't irrigate from mid-December through the middle of March."

More importantly, Wolk said, the rain got rid of the salt.

"We were getting 6, 7 inches in a 48-hour period—and it came in gentle rain, not thunderstorms," he said. "It was like manna from heaven in terms of getting rid of that salt. And so now, the trees are starting out the season in 2017 with a clean slate."

As a ranch manager, Wolk has also noticed trees getting overloaded.

"I've had to tell my customers, 'Don't panic now, but the trees are going to defoliate,'" he said. "They're going to drop all their leaves, because they got so much flower, they still have the fruit on the trees, they can't carry all that. So the tree is smarter than the rest of us, and it gives up that which is least important. What's least important for the avocado tree at this time of the year? Old leaves. So it drops them."

Avocado trees don't much like wind, either, as Schwabauer can attest. He estimated he lost 20 to 30 percent of his crop to Southern California's infamous Santa Ana winds.

"We're having some early fruit drop, and that's because the trees got so beat up," he said. "Actually, the fruit stems were damaged with all the Santa Ana winds we had in January and February. Now that the temperatures are warming, the fruit just can't hang on, and it's falling. So rather than having fruit falling on the ground, we want to go ahead and pick it and get it into the packinghouse."

Schwabauer and Van Leer farm in two of the last counties in California—Ventura and Santa Barbara—still classified as in drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, moderate drought persisted in the two counties, along with Orange and parts of Los Angeles, San Diego and Imperial counties, as of April 11.

Jan DeLyser of the California Avocado Commission estimated 200 million pounds of avocados will be produced in California this year, as compared to 401 million pounds in 2016. One reason for this is the cyclical nature of the trees, she said—after a productive 2016, California avocado trees are on the downswing.

As of April 9, about 44.6 million pounds of the fruit had been produced in the state, versus more than 912 million pounds of fruit imported into the U.S., according to the commission.

"We have lots of fruit in the marketplace right now from Mexico," Schwabauer said. "There's very little fruit in the market from California. It's obvious when you go into a restaurant and order avocado on a sandwich. The fruit that comes is from Mexico. You can taste the difference. It just doesn't have the really yummy, nutty flavor that we're used to for California fruit."

Avocado fans can take heart from the observations of some growers that 2018 will be a good year for California avocado production.

"We have a heavy bloom going on right now with the trees that don't have any fruit on them," Schwabauer said. "With the volume of bloom that we're seeing, we will most likely have a pretty heavy crop next year."

(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.