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A major packinghouse renovation was well under way at Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc. in Fallbrook, CA, and was within a few weeks of completion, when The Produce News talked to Robert (Bob) Lucy, the company’s president, Feb. 19.

“We have torn down a lot of the old coolers and have built one massive one,” Mr. Lucy said. Instead of having “the three little coolers that we had,” with the space “all chopped up,” those have been replaced with “one great big cooler that will almost double our storage space, which is just wonderful for us.”

In addition, “we have built five brand new ripening rooms,” he said. “We will be able to do 14 pallets per ripening room.”

002-CalAvos-DelRey---Bob-LuBob LucyThe loading dock area, which was previously partially open will now be fully enclosed and climate controlled, with the temperature maintained at probably 50 to 55 degrees, he said.

The dock “had worked out for us for 27 years,” Mr. Lucy said. “But now we want to take use of that area so we can have fruit stored there for a while” and not have it sitting in 85 or 90 degree summer heat “before we put it away.”

The entire project was expected to be finished “in about three weeks or so,” about the time the California season began ramping up in volume for Del Rey, according to Mr. Lucy.

Some of Del Rey’s growers had already started picking, and the company was trying to encourage them to get more fruit off of the trees during the early weeks of the season.

Fruit eight ounces and larger gets released for harvest Dec. 12, but with so much fruit from other growing areas in the marketplace at that time of year, California growers “don’t normally get started until maybe mid-February. That is more of the tradition now,” Mr. Lucy said.

Those who had started picking “are trying to size pick, which means they go into the groves and try to pick eight ounces and larger. The effort there is just to get some weight off of the trees. It helps the other fruit to size up, but then it also helps for the tree to have a good crop for the next year, and it tends to reduce alternate bearing, so we’ve got growers doing that both north and south,” he said.

“We as a company have always encouraged our growers to hit it pretty hard” early in the season “to try to get off at least 20 percent of the fruit by April 1, so when the trees are blooming in April they don’t have the stress of additional fruit,” he said.

Apart from the cultural advantages of the early harvest, “there is a number of customers, retailers, wholesalers and foodservice, that want to make a switch now,” Mr. Lucy continued. “They have no problem with the Mexican fruit, but they just want to make a switch. They want to start with California fruit.” Others are less eager. “So right now, it is basically a juggling act between customers that want to stay with Mexican, and they will for the next probably two to three months, and people that are switching.”

Most of those who are making the switch are in California or elsewhere in the western states, and that is largely due to transportation costs, he said.

“In other words, we are not getting people in Boston or in the East to switch to California fruit. It is mostly the West Coast — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle.”

With the larger crop, Mr. Lucy expects most growers to try to harvest more fruit March and April this year than in the past, so there will be less pressure on the market during June, July and August than there was last year.

Organic avocados have become “a very big part of our business” at Del Rey, and will continue to be so this year, Mr. Lucy said. “I am very proud of that.”

Del Rey has avocado growers in various growing districts in California, from San Diego County north to San Luis Obispo County. “We have a late season Morro Bay program that we do with the Shandleys, and that has been very successful,” Mr. Lucy said. “We will continue to do that. We hope it will be even bigger and better” this year “for September and October and into November.” That fruit is packed in a special “Morro” Bay box.

The company was currently in the process of looking for an additional sales person. “We are interviewing for that and will probably have someone hired within the next month,” Mr. Lucy said. “That will move Joe Reavis, who does sales and logistics and the ripening rooms to a position of just doing more of the ripening rooms and logistics” as well as food safety and some other “operational things.” The new hire will take over “some of Joe’s sales responsibilities. Plus it will free me up from being on the phone as often as I am on sales calls,” enabling him to “do a little bit more marketing, a little bit more strategy.”