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.

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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.

How we talk about #avocados

Avocados are everywhere. A fruit Americans once knew only in the Southwest and available seasonally is now nationwide and year-round. When I left California for college in the 1980’s, many of my new Midwestern friends were unfamiliar with avocados. Not any more.

They are a part of American culture now, but… and I hate to say this… the way we talk about avocados doesn’t reflect well on us. As much as people love avocados (and they really do), we also love to be scandalized by the price, or by millennials’ housing choices, or toast, or “avocado hand”. In the social media world, avocados are clickbait celebrities.

Avocados have become the Kardashians of the produce aisle.

I am going to be honest. All this lead me to avoid talking to people about avocados for a while. It was just too frustrating, especially after the Thomas fire in December of 2017 destroyed the homes and orchards of many friends.

When I was ready to break my vow of silence, I resolved to talk (and write) about avocados in a more thoughtful and positive way. What it takes to grow them. How they fit into Southern California farming. How they are reflected in the food we eat instead of the food we tweet.

Does it matter how we talk about avocados? Not to the avocados. Obviously it matters to people like me who derive an income from them. But is this sub-tropical fruit on the edges of the American diet really that important? Perhaps not. (There… I said it. Avocados might not be that important.)

But….

If we can talk about this one fruit in a more adult way, maybe we can have better conversations about the crops at the center of the American plate. Maybe we come to grips with the idea that all foods, all growing practices, all regions, inevitably involve trade-offs in terms of health, labor, economics, and the environment.

I think that would be a good thing. And since I can’t lead a conversation about commodity crops like corn or soy or dairy, I’ll talk about avocados. I’m going to start this conversation from where I am.

Which happens to be right next to a few hundred avocado seedlings.

Legacy

Today we completed a major replant in our orchard. Hundreds of young avocado trees are now rooted to the ground, standing proud in the spots they will occupy for the next three, four, or maybe five decades. It has been an exciting project, a plan that was put in motion 12 years ago as Dad and I tried to make sense of the future ahead of us. Lemons began to share space with avocados, covercrops spread across the orchard floor, newer avocado varieties joined the party. Last summer the lemons on a third of the ranch were ground into chips to help build the soil for the avocados to come. Soil preparation, irrigation system upgrades, refining planting patterns. It has been busy.

Today that work is finished. And I find myself feeling…what? Somber? Reflective? Aware of my own mortality.?20190617_180953

Planting an orchard is a time of new beginnings. And yet it can also be an act of finality. I will spend the rest of my career planting trees, and this block of avocados that we completed today will outlive me. It will be part of the legacy that I leave to my family and to this land. 

It’s no secret to me where this mood is coming from. In a coincidence of scheduling, today is the 5th anniversary of Dad’s death. It is also 5 months to the day since the passing of Carlos Ortega, the most tireless man I ever knew, who worked for us for 46 years.

The first real work I did in my life was learning to plan and plant an orchard with these men. I have felt their absence keenly these last couple of days, even as I have drawn on the wisdom they passed down.

At the end of the day, in the quiet broken only by the distant hum of commuters and the persistent drip-drip-drip of the irrigation, I looked out at the columns of newly planted arbolitos with a giant lump in my throat.

I wish they were here. In a way, they are, and always will be. Their bootprints are all over this soil, at least metaphorically. Today I am adding my own, even as I struggle with conflicting feelings of pride and humility, accomplishment and loss.

But I still wish they were here.

 

One year into the future of #avocados

Just about a year ago, I had a great visit with Nathanael Johnson of Grist. We toured the ranch and talked about the future of avocados in California and it resulted in an article that was pretty widely shared.

You should definitely check it out (and maybe even help out their spring fundraiser.) The TL,DR version is that I was apprehensive about the future, but our combination of climate, soil, and farming practices gave me confidence that we could figure it out. We would continue with our plans to plant more avocados in 2019.

Now that 2019 is here, what has happened?

smoke

Smoke from the Woolsey Fire passes to our South on the first day of the fire.

First off, the weather reminded me of the dangers of hubris almost immediately. July 5th brought a searing heatwave to the region. And while it did a good deal of damage to California’s avocado crop, our ranch in Saticoy weathered the 111 degree temperatures well. (Another orchard we farm was not so fortunate.) And fall brought another round of wildfires to our region, although once again our location in Saticoy kept us from harm.

Knowing that we can’t control the weather but we could control our soil, we went to work ensuring that the new trees would have the best soil we could offer. The lemon trees retired from the spot were ground up and returned to the soil. We added gypsum to improve it further and when fall came along, we planted a covercrop to add tons (literally) of biomass.

january

Covercrops capture winter rainfall and convert it to soil biomass for the hot summers ahead. January shown here.

For a change, the weather played nicely, delivering a winter of steady, evenly spaced rainfall. The blend of triticale, sunflowers and mustard thrived and by May represented a lot of organic material ready to be “banked.”

sunflowers

The same covercrop in May. It also provided some excellent pollinator habitat during avocado pollination season.

Soilbuilding is a central tenet of our approach to resiliency, but there’s more to farming than just the soil. There are a lot of details to work out before an orchard goes in the ground… After all, unlike annual crops, you don’t get a “do-over” for 35 years. Our new orchard will employ a higher density layout, helping us produce more avocados to meet continued demand. While the 25 year-old backbone of our irrigation system is unchanged, more efficient emitters will drop the water needed for each avocado we deliver. Better soil moisture monitoring technology not only saves water, but energy and fertilizer as well. And yet we still remember the soil. Once established, the new planting will include different covercrop blends better suited to the partial shade of the orchard floor.

mulching

Spreading mulch before planting

The trees are ready to go at the nursery, details have been finalized with our irrigation designer, equipment has been serviced, water filters changed. New hoses and drippers arrive Monday, followed in two weeks by the trees themselves.

I’m still a bit apprehensive about the future. Who wouldn’t be? But I feel like we are as well prepared as we can be. Avocados in 2050?

Let’s do it.

soil

What tree wouldn’t like soil like this?