Patience (and avocados)

Lamb Hass avocados still 5 months from harvest

Avocados demand patience at every step. An avocado pit germinated in the nursery will take 18 months until it is ready to be planted in the field. Once planted, it won’t bear fruit for several years, needing 5 to 7 to become a fully mature producing tree. An avocado flower, once pollinated, will take 15 months until it is ready to be harvested as fruit. And once the mature fruit is picked, it will still need 7 to 10 days to ripen to perfection.

And after all of that, you’re going to microwave the avocado to ripen it in 15 minutes? That’s just not how avocados work, regardless of what the article in your Twitter feed says.

Have patience.

A Thesis on Veteran’s Day

Farming and service were both common and familiar through much of our nation’s history. But in the American experience, they have gone from common (nearly universal) to rare (1 to 2% of the population) in just a couple of generations. Perhaps it is not surprising then that we have idealized them. They are no longer intimately familiar, but not yet alien.

When we think of farmers and soldiers, we think of our grandfathers.

Santa Anas are coming #avocados

It is Monday night and the Santa Anas are coming. 

High temperatures, low humidity, strong winds… everything that avocados hate is on tap later this week. Throughout the long cool summer just ended, I have known that this day was due to come, while I secretly hoped that our good weather would continue unimpeded. 

With hundreds of young trees facing their first serious stress, I find myself chewing over our preparations.

Are we ready? Much of the last few weeks has been spent staking and bracing limbs that are vulnerable to breakage because of a heavy fruit load on our 6 year old trees. Should I add some more? All the trees have been watered religiously, making sure they are strong and hydrated in anticipation of this event. I plan to irrigate again on Wednesday, just ahead of the winds. Is it time to upgrade the irrigation to accommodate the newest tree’s greater size? And if so, do I give them the next size dripper, or jump straight ahead to the micro-sprinklers? The kaolin clay I applied over the summer to protect the leaves and trunks from the harsh sun is still there, but does it need to be refreshed? In some spots it is a bit thin. In others the lush new growth is proud but unprotected.  Maybe I should whitewash just the most vulnerable looking trees with more clay.

Right now, the forecast for the wind event isn’t too scary. A relatively mild Santa Ana is expected Thursday. But If I am going to make these changes, I only have so much time to do them, and the winds are notoriously unpredictable. 

It occurs to me how invested I have become in these young trees. Economically of course, but also emotionally. The reasonable part of my mind tries its best to reassure the rest of me that all is fine. That a little loss is all part of the game, and that we have prepared as best we can. Tomorrow I can check the forecast again. I can make changes. We can run additional water to ease the stress. There are options.

I take a break from writing to check the forecast. Again. It hasn’t changed.

I accept, albeit with some discomfort, that we are where we need to be.

I hit “publish”, and shut down the laptop for the night, knowing that I’ll be revisiting all tonight’s choices before breakfast.

A foggy morning for #avocados

Anyone who has lived in coastal California knows “June Gloom.” The bane of tourism agencies up and down the coast, damp, foggy weather is common here just as summer kicks off. This weather pattern is well known to those of us who farm near the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The benign coastal influence is part of what makes Ventura County a leading location for lemons. This year its effects are particularly pronounced, and it has lingered through much of the summer.

I’m walking this morning through our orchard, and my first stop is among the young Lamb Hass avocado trees. These have been in the ground just six weeks. They have yet to see temperatures into the nineties. Much of their young lives have been spent with foggy mornings like this, and sunny afternoons in the seventies. This is wonderful weather for them to get established, as the vigorous flush of red growth at their tips makes clear.

Their older siblings sit just a few feet away. (Actually they are not siblings, but clones, all of our Lamb Hass being propagated by grafting from the same, original tree. That is a different story.) “Lambs” produce fruit later than the more common Hass, which is among the reasons we have some in our orchard. Our Hass were harvested three months ago, but the Lambs are still heavy with fruit. This cool weather has helped to hold the fruit later into the summer in hopes of higher prices. Sadly, it looks like the gamble is not going to pay off. Avocado prices have slumped in the last few weeks. They are still good by historical measures, but they are down from their highs. I suspect the recent spat of articles about high avocado prices are to blame, but whatever the cause, prices are off a bit and it is time to harvest before Chilean Hass enters the market.

Elsewhere on the farm, work is being completed on our well. Leaks in the column pipe were causing our output to drop, and while I had hoped to put off repairs until winter, the accelerating decline made it necessary to pull it  over the summer. Fortunately, everything else appears to be in good shape. I’m antsy to get it back in operation again. I know we have sufficient soil moisture for a few more days, but I hate the feeling of being without water. I check the weather app again. High of just 75 once the fog clears.

This is the essence of farming. Doing your best to respond to prices and weather beyond your control.

Welcoming young farmers

I have lately come to the realization that my “return to the farm” story is over… it is no longer a work in progress, but a history lesson. Around me young adults of the next generation are starting to filter back to the county. I talk to them and find myself reflecting on a parent, or perhaps grandparent whom I’ve known. Sometimes I catch myself before any words escape. Sometimes I hear them out loud… my father’s words, my grandfather’s words… from my own mouth, hanging in the air during a sudden, awkward pause in the conversation.

There is a script for welcoming young adults back to the farming community. I have been recast, and it is time for me to deliver different lines.

Timing the harvest of #avocados

Unlike many crops, avocados can be held on the tree for some time, as much as 5 or 6 months. This gives a farmer choices, but like all choices, there are consequences and risks.

Waiting to harvest may bring a better return. More time on the tree may result in larger fruit and more pounds to send to market. It may mean less competition from foreign fruit.

On the other hand, an avocado on the tree is an avocado at risk. It is in danger of being knocked to the ground by Santa Ana winds, damaged by a rodent, or even stolen by a thief. Picking early allows the trees to direct their energy to next year’s crop, or get a head start on pruning.

As a smaller grower, I have one advantage over larger neighbors. They need to be harvesting on a near perpetual basis during the season. They must spread their picking out over time, and by default will see returns close to the industry average. But those of us whose daily harvest is measured in the tens of bins have the opportunity to place the bulk of our fruit during the best market windows.

I wish there was a Magic 8 Ball to consult, but there isn’t. So harvest season is spent watching the weather for oncoming heat waves. Looking at inventory data to gauge supply and demand. Talking to the packing house and picking contractors to know when crews will be available. Trying ignore the greedy or fearful voice in my gut to focus on facts that I can use.

As I write this, I am watching the price decline as the next wave of Mexican fruit come to market. Prices are still very good by historical standards. Do I pick our Lamb-Hass as soon as the smaller sizes are deemed mature later this week? Gamble on stronger pricing and a little more size by waiting into August? Split the difference by picking the largest fruit now, and waiting for the rest to size?

Tell me Magic 8 Ball. Tell me.

Flux

A farm is never static, even one built around trees with a lifespan of decades. Every year, the weather is different. (I don’t mean in terms of climate, although yes: that too.) Markets are different. Pests are different.

Even the trees are different, for while they may be literally the same trees, they are not the same as they once were, just as you and I are not who were at 16 or will be at 90. So as the farmer, I am different too.