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Lightest California avocado harvest in decades now starting, but volume still months away

by Rand Green | January 27, 2009
Historically, the California avocado harvest has begun in late fall and built to a peak in spring and summer. But with increasing volumes of imported fruit in the market, the tendency more recently has been to hold off until February or March, when Chilean volume is in decline, to begin picking in earnest.

This year, growers are not expected to start ramping up their harvest until even later in the year, largely because of an exceptionally small crop on the trees.

Avocados are normally alternate-bearing, meaning that a light crop year is usually followed by a heavy crop year. But 2009 will mark the third short crop in a row for California growers, and in fact this year's crop is expected to be down from last year's already light crop by a staggering 36 percent, making it the smallest California avocado crop in at least two decades and a mere shadow of the huge crop harvested in 2006.

According to Guy Witney, director of industry affairs for the California Avocado Commission in Irvine, CA, the commission has estimated a harvest of 210 million pounds for the 2009 crop, down from a rather light 328 million pounds in 2008. The 2008 crop had originally been estimated at a moderate 358 million pounds and was being characterized as a "return to normal" after an "extremely small" 259-million-pound crop in 2007, but various factors intervened to reduce the crop size, some of which also affected this year's crop.

By contrast, the 2006 California avocado crop came in at a record 601 million pounds, and, in spite of its abundance, fetched good prices due to growing market demand. Total U.S. Hass avocado consumption exceeded a billion pounds that year.

The Hass Avocado Board in Irvine, CA, estimateed that the total volume of Hass avocados from all sources in the U.S. market during the 2008-09 fiscal year, which runs from November to October, will be about 896 million pounds - well short of what the market can potentially absorb. Mexico has been increasing its Hass exports to the United States, and those were expected to take up much, but not all, of the slack resulting from lighter California and Chilean crops.

When The Produce News spoke with Mr. Witney Jan. 12, he said that some growers had begun to pick new-crop Hass. "We have a few, maybe 20 or 30 bins a day, going through the system, which is very light right now," he said. "Really, the growers are becoming accustomed to waiting for the Chilean fruit to get out of the market before starting to harvest in earnest. So the fruit that we do see is either fruit that has sized up significantly and growers are picking that fruit and then giving the rest of the crop a chance to gain some further size," or it is fruit that growers are picking because they have "a cash flow issue and need to pay their water bills and other expenses."

It is unusual to have even two small crop-years in a row, Mr. Witney said. "It shows how weather can influence farming in California, in that we had such a hot spring in 2008" when the bloom for the 2009 harvest was setting. "The heat caused abortion of flowers and very difficult conditions during pollination and fruit set," he said. "We just didn't see any crop at all in some areas, particularly up north where our temperatures in May were in excess of 110 degrees for a couple of days with very low humidity." The extreme heat "overrode the effect that we would normally see after a low crop year," and the anticipated bounce-back just didn't occur, he said.

But he expects an abundant bloom and fruit set this spring, which, if weather and other factors don't intervene, should lead to a sizable crop in 2010. The extremely small crop this year is expected to cause a hardship for many growers who are already struggling with "all of the other challenges," including water cutbacks and "other negative influences on the industry," Mr. Witney said.

Growers have been plagued in the past two or three years not only by extreme heat but also by severe frost, devastating wildfires and prolonged drought conditions leading to water cuts that were exacerbated by state water policy and an antiquated water storage and delivery infrastructure in the state. And that's the short list.

Many growers in Southern California receive water from the Metropolitan Water District and have been on a discount program that puts them at the top of the list for water cuts when water is short.

Last year, due to drought and the inability to transfer sufficient water from Northern California through the Sacramento Delta and into the California aqueduct, growers found their water deliveries reduced by one-third. Many growers were forced to either pull out up to one-third of their trees or cut them back to stumps.

It will take years for the industry to recover from that acreage reduction, and the prospects continue to look bleak with a possibility for water cuts of 40 percent this year.

According to Mr. Witney, about half of the growers who had been on the ag discount program opted out this year, and they may be facing cutbacks for 2009 of only 15 percent. The others, he said, are "banking on there being significant precipitation between now and the end of the rainy season," hoping that they can keep their discounts and not have any further cutbacks in delivery. But it would take "some really big storms to come through and put us over the top in terms of refilling reservoirs" in order to avoid facing a continued water shortage. "Right now, the Sierra snowpack is lower than normal for this time of year," he said.

On the bright side, the Colorado River Project, from which many growers get some of their water, "is looking fairly promising this year," Mr. Witney said. "But the state water system is still looking pretty dismal."

Ordinarily, growers would begin ramping up their harvest in March and April, but because of the exceptionally short crop this year, "I anticipate it will be as late as May before we start seeing California dominate the weekly shipments - shipping more than Mexico is, for example," Mr. Witney said. With so little fruit available, he expects its value to be "fairly high." So growers are aware that if they do not have to rush to market due to cash flow problems, "the best option is to wait."

Mr. Witney noted that as avocado imports increased from 2004 to 2007, the avocado industry in the United States was seeing an overall expansion in supplies of 10-20 percent a year, and the market had no problem absorbing the increased volume. The market did not even seem to react much when weekly shipments topped 25 million pounds, "which occurred in 2006," he said. "That would indicate that there is a lot of room in this U.S. domestic market to grow."

Unfortunately, not only California but also much of the world avocado industry "has been beset by climatic conditions that have wiped out segments of the crop for one or two years," he added. In 2007, for example, Chile as well as California experienced serious freezes that "really reduced the overall potential supply to the market."

Chile is recovering, he said, and it appears that growers there will have "a very big crop" in late 2009 and early 2010. Also, "if nothing goes wrong between now and the early part of next year, we will probably have a very large crop too" for 2010, he said. "And of course Peru is coming on line," with access to the U.S. market expected to be approved for Peruvian Hass in 2010. "So we will be back to the billion-pound-plus years and hopefully continued expansion of the markets as we get more fruit into the system," Mr. Witney said.