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The good news for buyers is that with an increase in import volumes, the amount of avocados in the marketplace in the United States over the course of the 2009 calendar year is expected to be greater than last year and could potentially approach a record 1.1 million pounds, according to some projections.

Unfortunately for California avocado growers facing one of the smaller California crops in years, possibly in decades, the California share of that market will only be somewhere around 20 percent of the total. The remainder will come primarily from Mexico and Chile.

The official California Avocado Commission estimate for the 2009 California crop is 210 million pounds for all varieties and 195 million pounds for Hass, according to Guy Witney, director of industry affairs for the commission. Some handlers "are wanting to skew that down a little," he said March 16. "It is very difficult at this stage to know exactly where the number will end up" because two factors are working at odds with each other. The lighter set on the trees is allowing the fruit to size better than usual, but drought conditions may prevent the fruit from sizing as much as it otherwise might. "So we have a bit of an unknown out there."

But in balance, the 210-million-pound estimate "looks pretty good right now." An array of factors has affected the size of the 2009 crop. Among them are residual effects of a freeze two years ago, damage from wildfires last year and a reduction in bearing acreage due to water cuts.

The quality of the fruit is beautiful, however, Mr. Witney said. This will make "two years in a row where the look of the fruit is magnificent.

Some growers have been harvesting fruit in light volume since shortly after the first of the year, but because of the light California crop and a heavier-than- usual import volume from Mexico, most of them are holding back until mid- to late April, when Mexican volume starts to drop, before they begin harvesting in earnest. The peak period for California shipments is expected to be May through August, by which time Chile is expected to be coming in with big volume.

California shippers, who also handle imported fruit, expect that the combined volume from all sources will be sufficient to provide the marketplace with the 20 million to 22 million pounds of fruit each week that it can absorb, with the possible exception of mid-summer, when the total volume available may be a little less than that for a few weeks.

California fruit is expected to be in the marketplace in good volume in time for Cinco de Mayo promotions.

As of mid-March, Mexican avocados were "still maintaining a dominance in the market, and the California growers are now starting to come in," said Doug Meyer, vice president of sales and marketing for West Pak Avocado Inc. in Temecula, CA. "There was a little bit of delay in starting harvest for some growers in anticipation of better marketing conditions.

Rob Wedin, vice president of fresh sales for Calavo Growers Inc. in Santa Paula, CA, said March 13 that the California season had barely started but that the harvest would be accelerating, with good volume coming off by mid-April in time for the Cinco de Mayo promotional period.

With above-average sizing, "you could see higher prices on small fruit," Mr. Wedin said. "When that would start, I don't know."

"Our concern is we may end up with a crop that has an awful lot of 32s and 36s and 40s and not as many 48s and 60s, but time will tell on that," said Bob Lucy, president of Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc. in Fallbrook, CA.

Mr. Lucy expects California shipments through the summer to be in the range of 12 million to 14 million pounds a week, supplemented by the Mexican off- season crop.

(For more on the California avocado deal, see the March 30 issue of The Produce News.)