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Mission Produce involved in all avocado growing areas in U.S. market

The 2011 California avocado season was about two-thirds complete and moving rapidly to a conclusion when The Produce News talked to Ross Wileman, vice president of sales and marketing at Mission Produce Inc. in Oxnard, CA, July 21.

“We are probably 65 percent through the season, picking at a very brisk pace,” he said. “We are probably going to go, in any kind of measurable volume, through about the middle of August, and then it will really taper off.”

But growers in three other avocado producing countries are eager to take up the slack as the California volume winds down, and Mission Produce will be handling fruit from all of them.

“We are involved in all the regions,” Mr. Wileman said. “We are trying to be vertically integrated in every country that we source from, and that is always a work in progress.”

In Mexico, the largest exporter of avocados to the United States, “we own and operate our own packing facility,” Mr. Wileman said. “We just completed a major enlargement of that facility.”

In Chile, “we have partners that we collaborate with,” he said.

In Peru, “we have a major partnership with a company down there,” he continued. “We are anticipating that the Peruvian fruit … may be released tomorrow. We are all sitting on the edge of our seats.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture did, indeed, make the much anticipated announcement on July 22, that Peruvian avocados would be allowed into the U.S. market without cold treatment.

In its packinghouses in California and in Mexico, Mission Produce packs its fruit in the “Mission” label. In Chile and Peru, the company’s partners also pack for Mission Produce in the “Mission” label, so “we handle our own label” for product from all four sources, he said.

Mexico had just finished shipping its old-crop fruit and was just starting the new season with fruit from an early, light flush of “off-bloom” fruit known as flora loca that always precedes the main crop. The flora loca set “seems to be a little lighter” than normal this year, and growers in Mexico have “a very good domestic market to go to,” Mr. Wileman said.

Following the flora loca, Mexico’s “new-crop season typically starts around the first of September” and that “looks like a good size crop” this year, he said. “It is always hard to get hard numbers out of Mexico” as to “what is really on the trees. But we anticipate some good volume” through the fall, winter and spring months, “probably larger than what we have experienced this [past] year, which is positive.”

Chilean avocado growers have “just started to pick and ship small volumes,” Mr. Wileman said. “They had a freeze down there, but from what we are hearing, it wasn’t substantial” and had only “a slight impact on the crop.”

Chilean avocados “will be here in earnest, in volume, realistically I would say by the first of September,” although lighter volume will be arriving as early as the first part of August, he said.

Peru was nearing the end of its season, but what fruit does come in this year will help “fill the void” as California volume tapers off and Mexico is still in its “lighter off-bloom season,” he said.

Supplies of avocados from all sources have been inadequate to meet demand, leading to some high prices over the past year, a situation expected to change with larger crops ahead.

“I think the amazing thing that we have seen” during the past year,” Mr. Wileman said, is that even “with these record high prices,” the volume of avocados marketed in the United States has been “unbelievable.” Even at high retail prices and even in a sluggish economy, consumers have seen avocados as “still a justifiable purchase.”

For the year ahead, “we are prepared … to bring fruit to the United States” from all producing areas supplying the U.S. market “to feed this appetite” that U.S. consumers have for avocados, he said.

In addition to conventionally grown avocados, Mission also handles certified organic product year-round. Overall, it remains “a very small percentage of the whole volume,” but the category is “growing slowly,” Mr. Wileman said. “There is more acreage coming on all the time.”

With the economic downturn over the last couple of years, “I think maybe it was anticipated that [organic sales of avocados] would fall off because it is traditionally higher priced,” he said. “But that has not been the case.”

New on sales at Mission Produce is Brooke Franklin, a recent graduate of California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo. “We had her on as an intern prior to her full-time employment,” Mr. Wileman said. “We have just brought on another intern,” Leigh Anne Thomsen, who is also from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.