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It's a welcome change for California avocado growers and retailers alike. After two successive years of light California crops, the 2010 crop has a heavy set and is estimated at a volume two and a half to three times that of the 2009 crop.

Due to a variety of reasons, last year's crop came in at just 170 million pounds, one of the smallest in years. This year, the California Avocado Commission's official estimate as of late February called for a 2010 harvest of 470 million pounds, although some shippers think it could top 500 million and others expect it to be closer to 225 million. So volumes could be far in excess of double last year's volume and should provide reliable supplies and, say the marketers of the fruit, abundant promotional opportunities for retailers.

Demand, which has been growing steadily and which outstripped the total availability of avocados from all sources for each of the last two seasons, is expected to be sufficient to take the entire crop, in addition to whatever fruit may be coming up from Mexico during the California season. Growers are optimistic that although market prices will certainly be lower than last year, demand will be strong enough that those prices will return a profit to the farm.

Fruit sets are heavy, particularly in the northern districts in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and as a result of a heavy load on the trees, initial fruit size is on the small side, but ample winter rainfall is expected to help the fruit size so that the sizing profile of the crop should be closer to normal as the season progresses.

The small sizes on the early fruit and competition from Chilean and Mexican fruit in the marketplace contributed to light California harvests in January and February, as did rainstorms that limited access to the groves for picking. Fruit maturity, on the other hand, is said not to have been a limiting factor, as early maturity and eating quality have been better than usual for early fruit.

Most growers were expecting to be picking in fairly strong volume by mid- March, as the Chilean fruit in the market was tapering off sharply by late February. Weekly volume was projected to increase steadily to full production by mid-April and then continue strong through at least mid-September. Many shippers expected to continue shipping well into October and possibly into November, which would be two to three months longer than the California season lasted in 2009.

"We are going to wind up in September and October with pretty strong California shipments. We will have fruit in November for sure," said Rob Wedin, vice president of sales and fresh marketing for Calavo Growers Inc. in Santa Paula, CA.

One unusual aspect of this year's crop is that it is heavier to the northern than to the southern districts. Typically, about 60 percent of the California crop comes from the southern growing areas, mainly San Diego and Riverside counties, with 40 percent coming from the north.

"This year, it is actually going to be the reverse of that," said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission in Irvine, CA. "But the northern fruit, again, has that early maturity, so it shouldn't have any impact on actual availability of the fruit."

"We have some groves [in the northern districts] that are over 30,000 pounds per acre, just absolutely loaded," said Bob Lucy, president of Del Rey Avocado Co. in Fallbrook, CA. Mr. Lucy believes that the crop size for the industry will be "every bit of 470 [million pounds] and probably more."

The larger crop should allow for wider distribution across the country. "You will see a lot more California avocados this year in the eastern part of the United States that you haven't seen the last several years," said Rankin McDaniel, president of McDaniel Fruit Co. in Fallbrook, CA. "We have a lot of [customers] that are looking forward to having avocados from California again."

Because of the "significantly larger crop," said Dana Thomas, president of Index Fresh Inc. in Bloomington, CA, "we will have significant volumes of California fruit, and those volumes will give us the opportunity to do some creative things in marketing and promotion." He expects adequate volumes "for promotions in all sizes."

(For more on California avocados, see the March 15, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)