What’s the biggest day of the year for avocado consumption? If you said Cinco de Mayo, you are wrong. No, the annual guacamole fest also known as the Super Bowl is the avocado’s high point of the year, and farmers as well as big shippers get ready well in advance to move some fruit big time on Super Sunday.California has abundant avocados and is experiencing a nice large crop this year, primarily of the Hass variety. Hass are considered the Cadillac of avocados. They have thick, bumpy skins that hide bruises and other cosmetic defects, creamy, lush flesh and rich, full flavor. Right now in California there are 22 million pounds of California, Chilean and Mexican avocados in the storage pipeline ready go be shipped out in time for next Sunday’s game. On a normal week about six to seven million pounds of imported avocados reach American shipping points, but in the run up to Super Bowl Sunday an additional two million pounds come into the state. This breaks out into 12 million pounds of California fruit combined with ten million pounds of imports. Due to current USDA restrictions, Mexican avocados are not allowed to be sold in either California or Florida, but California packers can buy and sell them for other Eastern markets, which can create problems for local farmers. The big packers buy imported fruit outright, but California fruit is on consignment. It is in the packers’ interest to buy as much cheap fruit from outside the country as possible and to put consignment fruit on the back of their sales, waiting for prices to drop. This year, packers overbought imported and they are already facing a $2 per case loss – a significant amount considering the millions of pounds waiting to be sold. Large California orchards are able to wait out price fluctuations by holding their fruit on the trees while the supply bulge works its way through the supply pipeline. Also, Chilean and Mexican imports are picked early so they have inferior flavor and quality, while California fruit is held longer to develop size and flavor.But the influx of avocados from south of the border is an inevitable fact of sales, and after years of resistance, the USDA will allow Mexican avocados to reach California markets beginning in 2007. California growers cited concerns about infestations getting into their groves, but trade negotiations included assurances that Mexican avocados would come only from certified, inspected orchards. However, farmers remember well that it was just a few years ago that a serious fruit fly infestation closed down hundreds of acres of ripe citrus and avocados in San Diego County. The infestation was traced to a single piece of Mexican fruit discarded in the middle of an orchard.California avocado farmers, both large and small, will have to adjust to the reality of Mexican imports. On the marketing end, large growers see benefits to a steady supply of pest-free Mexican fruit. Mexican avocados can be sold when the California supply is light, so large shipments of imports in May through July keep supply (and demand) strong. California’s avocados can be sold in northern Mexican states when their production is at its peak. And, the combined advertising budget for all avocados has increased this year by $10 million due to marketing fees from imports, resulting in effective marketing campaigns. Overall, avocado consumption in the US has increased steadily over the years, including a 15 percent jump this year alone. The health benefits of avocados are now widely known, and cultures and population trends have produced more avocado consumers. Avocado wholesalers used to sell eight million pounds per week. Now, combined sales are holding steady and nineteen million pounds per week. This is both good and bad news for California growers. Packing houses buy from any grower, the cheaper the better. To keep up with demand, California farmers have begun planting in Mexico, where labor and costs are cheaper and selling back to wholesalers in the US. As long as demand remains high, prices will hold, but California growers fear that sustained overplanting will ultimately drive prices down – they have only to look at the great grape crash of the 1990s as a sobering lesson in market economics. California growers would prefer to sell their avocados right here at home, but imports are driving the big shippers and the buying power is with them. California growers have little contact with consumers, who seem to care less and less about where the fruit is grown and more and more about the availability of a year-round supply. California growers intend to take more advantage of the USDA’s “Buy California” campaign and place CA GROWN stickers on every piece of fruit sold at supermarkets. Chilean fruit is already labeled, and it is hoped that the Mexican fruit will be plainly labeled as well. Foreign imports have also squeezed the California farmers’ window of sales opportunity. Where once California growers could sell a large portion of their fruit during their prime growing season – early spring to early summer – imports have been brought into to capture a share of the market. California avocados are not widely accepted in Mexico either, so the “fair trade” is only working in one direction. California growers look with envy at the Mexican trade negotiators who have protected their farmers at home as a matter of national policy. “Out-maneuvered at every turn” is how California avocado growers feel about the negotiations.So, as usual, California farmers are forced to punt. San Diego grower Jerome Stehly, who sells both at farmers’ markets and on the wholesale level sees the trend and is already adjusting. As encouraging as it is that the demand and price for avocados remains strong, he has seen his water, energy and labor costs increase as well. To limit expenses, he has installed solar power systems on his pumps and packing sheds. On the state legislative level, there has been a slight reduction in workers’ comp costs. On his own farm, Stehly has instituted a rigorous worker safety and training program that has resulted in the elimination of both accidents and claims for four and a half years. And, continuously, the farmer must ask him or herself – “Am I diversified enough? Am I doing the best job I possibly can? Am I keeping an eye on my farm and on the market forces without?” In an effort to remain competitive, Stehly has converted his avocados to 100 percent organic production. While the majority of his Hass crop goes to the wholesale market, Jerome and his brother Noel also grow Reed avocados for farmers’ markets. Customers have grown to appreciate the round “bowling ball” Reeds for their exceptional taste and value, and to seek out the rare Reeds at their local farmers’ market.Inside as outside the farmers’ market, the challenges facing California avocado farmers are multiple and daunting. Fortunately, the avocado continues to be widely appreciated as a healthful delicious food. Down on the farm, it is late in the game and the only way to win is with a good game plan, determination and skill. And that is a play that will not be seen on the big screen come Super Bowl Sunday.
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