What Do You Grow to Replace Avocados?

— The sign on Steve Olson's office door says Olson Avocado Management. The logo on his jacket reads Olson Firewood. When you work in agriculture, you have to stay flexible. "Groves we planted 10, 20 years ago, we're now cutting down," he says ruefully. "At one time we couldn't plant them fast enough. Now when you drive around you see the people have just turned the water off, and the trees are dying."

Once, California's avocado business attracted an adventurous, competitive lot. Growers scoured Mexico and Guatemala for new budwood or waited eagerly for a seed to sprout to see if it produced a hardier, more buttery fruit than its parent. In 1910 the avocado business was 50 years old, and farmers from Santa Barbara to San Diego grew 90 different varieties. Only the smooth, green Fuerte survived the freeze of 1913 to become the industry's backbone. Fuerte budwood had come from a dooryard tree in Puebla, Mexico.

The dark, pebbly, thick-skinned Hass, another chance seedling from Guatemalan stock, was patented in 1935, and the first large acreage was planted in Fallbrook. By the late 1960s, Hass's superior taste, shipping qualities, and shelf life made it the dominant variety. In 1970 California had an estimated 18,000 bearing acres of avocados, more than half of that in San Diego County.

The years Steve Olson remembers so well, the late '70s and early '80s, were boom times for planters. Every doctor, dentist, or lawyer worth his license sheltered income in a new avocado grove, which wouldn't produce marketable fruit for several years. Bearing acreage statewide was estimated at 76,000 in its peak year, 1987. To increase demand and keep prices up, the California Avocado Commission, the industry's grower-funded marketing arm, scrambled to educate Midwest and East Coast consumers in the finer points of the fruit ("First, don't eat them when they're hard...."). But in the late '80s and early '90s, the end of tax breaks stalled development, and the realities of raising a water-loving, subtropical evergreen in arid Southern California shook small growers out of the business. Olson recalls, "When we first started doing this, 25 years ago, water was, like, $100 an acre foot, and now it's about $650. Depending on the weather, a full, mature tree will take anywhere from 300 to 500 gallons per tree per week over about eight months of the year. Your water bill on a 10-acre grove will probably be $3000 a month. If the grower puts out $30,000 or $40,000 in water, and then the winds hit, and the fruit's on the ground, or they don't set a good crop, and they only get back $20,000 on the fruit, well, that's a big loss. Plus the cost of fertilizer, labor, the land." Olson estimates that 50 to 60 percent of the cost of an avocado is in the water the grove requires. The Metropolitan Water District has recently given growers a 17 percent break in residential rates, "which isn't a lot, but it helps," says Olson.

From a high of around 40,000 acres in the late '80s, county avocado acreage is now down to 27,000. As Olson sees it, the growers who've left the business, aside from some of the tax-shelter groves, are "the homeowners who planted 10 or 20 acres and planned to live on it and have that as their only income, but really didn't have the resources to keep it going for three or four bad years. Most of the people that have hung on are the absentee owners who have another business and have money and can afford to lose money here and there."

The key to making money on an avocado grove, Olson says, is to produce large fruit early in the harvest season, November and December. "All Hass avocados are the same, the large and the small." (Olson stresses the correct pronunciation; "Hass" rhymes with "pass.") "You only get big fruit if you water heavy and you fertilize heavy throughout the year. So if you can afford to do that, or if you have a well, then you can make very good money. But even then, most Southern California wells are pretty salty, and avocados don't like salt. But anyway, if you're like the majority of the growers out here who are putting on a limited amount of [district] water because that's all they can afford, your fruit doesn't grow, and you can't pick until January or February, when the prices start going down.

"[In December] I was picking some groves at $1.50 a pound, but now, a month later, prices for the smaller fruit went down to about 80" a pound." It has to do with how avocados are released to the market.

Blame the state's Department of Food and Agriculture for the high cost of guacamole in December. Each year the department sends growers regulations on what size fruit can be harvested and sent to market and on what date they can be released. This year the large Hass, the nine-ounce fruit, were released on December 2, with harvests of increasingly smaller fruit released every two weeks or so until January 20, at which time growers were permitted to strip-pick their groves. (Because avocados, like bananas, mature on the tree but ripen off the tree, growers will actually harvest gradually through August so the market isn't saturated in late January.) And because California supplies 90 percent of the nation's avocados, the fruit is relatively easy to transport and store, and most of the retail cost of the fruit is incurred before it's picked, an avocado in San Diego will cost only pennies less than an avocado in Boston at any given time.

Given the economics of avocado ranching and the now-legal Mexican imports scheduled to hit the American market in November, Olson and others are guarded about the future of the county's groves. They see a frontal assault by the California Avocado Commission, the industry's marketing arm, as their best hope. The commission insists its objection to the imports is not the potential effect on wholesale prices but is strictly an issue of sanitation - to prevent the infection of the state's groves with a seed weevil now found only in Mexican avocados. (The weevil is spread by direct contact with infected fruit, not by air or other means.)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's agreement with Mexico, among other restrictions, avocados trucked into the U.S. must cross at designated checkpoints along the Texas border and travel specific highway routes to their markets in the Northeast and North Central states. Despite this, the commission doubts that Mexican fruit can be kept out of the state once it's across the border.

But avocado ranchers in tropical Michoacan benefit from daily rains, generally better growing conditions, and cheaper labor than their American counterparts. An avocado in Canada, one of Mexico's markets, costs a half to a third as much as in the U.S. And one person who has worked in the local industry for many years says candidly that since the avocado-import decision has been in the news, it's been managers, packers, and wholesalers who have expressed the most concern. The growers themselves, the businessmen for whom avocados are one part of a larger portfolio, have been less vocal.

Steve Olson's dad started the family business 25 years ago, and now Steve is watching it change. About the future of San Diego avocado land already removed from production he says, "Most people aren't planting anything. Most are just letting the trees go and cutting them down and letting it go back to bare land and saving on the water bills. Nobody wants to go through the 'What are you going to put in?' There's nothing you can plant there where you're going to make a lot of money, otherwise everybody'd put it in. And there's nobody to sell out to. Nobody's buying. There are some places where the land is more level, and they're selling them out as horse estates and small properties. There are no better deals out there."

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