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The 2010 California Hass avocado crop was the fourth largest on record, at around 530 million pounds. By contrast, the 2011 crop is estimated to be about half of last year's crop or a bit less, in the area of 250 million pounds, according to the California Avocado Commission.

Harvest had begun in a light way as of mid-March, but shippers did not expect to see significant volume until around mid-April, with most of the crop coming off between then and August.

Quality is expected to be excellent. Sizing, although starting on the smaller side due to cool weather, is expected to increase to average or better sizes once the weather warms, due to the lighter load on the trees.

Mexican Hass avocados continue to be in the market, but the aggregate volume of Mexican and California fruit has been below market demand, and marketers expect that to continue to be the case until well into the third quarter when a new Mexican crop gets underway and Chile comes back into the market with what is expected to be a larger crop than it had in 2010-11.

Because the weekly volume of fruit in the marketplace has been running well below the record levels achieved last year, prices are much higher and were expected to continue high throughout most of the California season.

Weekly market demand for Hass avocados in the United States is now between 22 million and 25 million pounds, but current supplies in the marketplace in early March were actually running about 4 million to 5 million pounds less than that, according to Bob Lucy, president of Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc. in Fallbrook, CA. As a consequence, market prices have been as high as $40 to $50, well above a year ago.

But avocados are not alone. Due to weather problems in various growing areas, many commodities were currently short and high-priced. Two different shippers that The Produce News talked to mentioned Romaine prices at $40 for example.

Although the California avocado crop is down by about 50 percent, it also will be compressed into a shorter marketing window than last year, so weekly California shipments will not be off by a full 50 percent during the main part of the season.

Rob Wedin, vice president of fresh sales for Calavo Growers Inc. in Santa Paula, CA, said that he expected California's weekly volume to be down about 40 percent below last year through April, May and June and down at least that much during July and August, although he acknowledged that trying to get a clear picture right now of what the third quarter would be like was a challenge.

With fruit from Mexico added to the mix, Mr. Wedin expects to see the total amount of fruit in the U.S. marketplace over the next several months down only about 20 percent, on a weekly basis, compared to what it was a year ago.

By sometime in the third quarter, with the new Chilean and Mexican crops coming into play, weekly volume should come more into line with demand, and prices should return to reasonable levels, he said.

(For more on California avocados, see the March 28/April 11, 2011, issue of The Produce News.)