Rest Easy, #Avocado Fans!

If the “Keep Calm and _______ ” meme hadn’t already been massively overplayed, this would have been the one time that I would have used it. Do you find yourself worried about the latest predictions of the coming avocado famine?

Keep Calm.

Many of you may recall Chipotle’s “Gaucapocalypse Now” scare from last year. It was just the latest in the time honored tradition of avocado obituaries. Avocados have always been rumored to be on the brink of extinction. Pests. Drought. Diet fads. Root rot. Every recent decade has had it’s own panic for it’s own reasons. Yet Americans enjoy more today than ever, and that won’t change any time soon.

2015-04-14 10.57.30

800 young avocado trees are replacing lemons at our ranch in Saticoy. More are planned.

Adam Sternbergh’s article in GrubStreet is actually pretty good. It is a detailed look at the very real challenges faced by some California avocado growers and the steps they are taking to deal with those challenges. But the attention grabbing headline only makes sense if you ignore the bigger picture. Yes, San Diego and Riverside area growers are in a real bind. I have friends down there and it really does suck (to be blunt.)

But along California’s Central Coast, including Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo Counties, the water picture is much better. (Not perfect, of course… this is 2015 California.) Newer orchards with younger trees are producing well. Better management techniques are evolving and new rootstocks are being developed. While total avocado acreage in the state may well decrease a bit, total production isn’t expected to follow it down. Avocados have always been prone to alternating light and heavy crops. This will continue and cause occasional price fluctuations, just as it always has.

But have you had your last California avocado? Only if you don’t want another.

And who’d believe that?

Advertisements

#avocado blossoms

Image

#avocado blossoms

The avocado flower is not pretty. In January it is not yet fully formed, and vaguely resembles thin, sickly, yellow broccoli. Most fruit trees are heralded for their beautiful and fragrant blossoms. Apples and Oranges, the classic example of opposites, are both renowned for the their flowers. Not so for the avocado blossom. It has inspired no festivals, no folksongs, no shampoos. Now they grow slowly and wait for spring, when they will begin the year or more journey to harvest. (Picture is from March 2013… too windy to get a good shot today)

Reading the Crop Report

The 2011 Crop Report from the Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner was released on Tuesday. This report always generates a lot of interest, and can be a very useful source of information. Here are 6 tips for a reader looking for a better understanding of Ventura County Agriculture.

It reports sales, not profits. The crop report only reports the value of the crop sold, not the amount the farmer had left in profits at the end of the year. In 2011, avocado growers “made” just under $92 million dollars. But that is without considering the costs of water, labor, interest, fertilizer, equipment, property taxes and more. Those costs averaged approximately $6,000 per acre, or just over $100 million for the 16,777 acres of avocados in Ventura County. Overall, Ventura County avocado growers probably lost somewhere around $9 million last year.

Rankings are relative. Most attention paid to the report is directed at the changes on the Top Ten list. After all, everybody loves a contest. But the movement of one commodity past another on the list really says very little by itself. Lemons “moved up” to the number three spot. Does that mean that lemons are doing better? Actually, the value of Ventura County’s lemon crop barely changed… up just one tenth of a percent. Prices were down and acreage was down. But, largely due to favorable weather, production per acre was up. Overall, the report is decidedly a mixed bag for Ventura’s favorite citrus.

Trends are the real story. The crop report reflects the changing dynamics of Ventura County agriculture. It is the history of our local farms as it is being written. $185 million in raspberry sales is an impressive accomplishment for the growers who made that happen. This milestone is worth attention because raspberries were not grown here in any commercially significant way until the late ‘90’s. When many parts of our country have barely seen their crops change in a century, raspberries have made a big impact on Ventura County in just a touch more than a decade.

Acreage points the way. The value of Mandarin oranges dropped this year due to a combination of lower prices and lower production (primarily because of weather). But don’t count the tiny oranges out yet. Acreage increased nearly 50% in one year, from 722 acres to 1080. This is a huge expansion, and indicates many very young trees that will be getting larger and more productive every year. The future will be small and orange.

When land is expensive, per acre production counts. How do you sell $10 million worth of cucumbers from 147 acres? By producing 61 tons on every acre. Highly intensive agricultural practices are expensive, but they can deliver staggering results. Cucumber sales nearly doubled from 2010, primarily due to incredible yields in greenhouse operations. Tomatoes also averaged more than 50 tons per acre in 2011. Take the time to look at per acre production in the charts.

Eat more kale. Ventura County now produces more kale (in dollar value) than livestock. The rise of this formerly obscure green into the $10 million club says something about the way American dietary habits are changing. Ventura County is one of the top nations in the nation for fruit and vegetable production. When Americans eat more salads, the money comes here.

I don’t market avocados

I will sell you any type of fruit I grow, but I will not market avocados.

 Why not?

 I love to provide my customers with the freshest, ripest fruit possible. The citrus fruits and figs we supply are picked at the peak of their flavor and put into the hands (and mouths) of our customers as fast as humanly possible. It is a bit harder to do it that way, but that is how we deliver a great product. And that is what we market. That fresh off the tree flavor is our brand.

But what about an avocado, freshly picked, right of the tree? Hard as a rock. Absolutely inedible. When is the right time to pick it? Anywhere within a several month window. An avocado needs to sit quietly for 5 days, 7 days, or more before it is creamy ripe and delicious. So if I can’t pick it at the right moment, and getting it to the customer faster doesn’t help, what does that do to our value proposition? Our competitive advantage? Completely negated when it comes to avocados.

 Don’t get me wrong… I’m happy to sell you some avocados, and you will be very happy with them. But are they a “class apart” eating experience like our Meyer lemons or “Harry’s figs?”

 Nope… And that is why I don’t market them. I won’t brag about our fruit, unless I can back it up.

PS: We will have a few Gem and Lamb Hass late season avocados available when the only competition is Chilean fruit that has spent a month on boat…  You might see me marketing those.

Elitist Foodie or Cheapskate Dirt Farmer?

Yesterday we had the pleasure of having some new friends from Santa Monica out for lunch on the farm. Seemed like everyone had a good time watching the goats and chickens. It was also nice to be able to serve a lunch that was drawn in large part from our own soil. For those foodies keeping score, home grown lunch items included:

A generous squeeze of Meyer lemon for the baked salmon;

A sanguinelli blood orange vinegarette dressing;

Chunks of Cara Cara navel orange  and shaved fennel bulb in the salad;

And sliced avocado served with some Meyer lemon, which was supposed to go into the salad. I forgot to add it, so it was its own “tasting course”.

I’m not really as much of a foodie as you might think from that description, but I do enjoy making the best use of the fresh ingredients that we have available. And while some people equate minor citrus varietals with expensive food snobbery, for me they are free.

So am I an elitist foodie or a cheapskate dirt farmer?

The jury’s still out,  but I’ll cop to either…

Crow, served cold, with Avocado on the Side

This morning saw the annual meeting of the California Avocado Commission (CAC) in Carpinteria. Another meeting will be held separately for Southern growers. It got pretty lively, as grower meetings go. Why? Some quick history:

 

In May of last year (2008), Mark Affleck, the Commission’s CEO of 20 years, abruptly resigned. Little was said of it publicly at the time, but obviously there was speculation. In early January 2009, the CDFA released results of an audit they conducted on the Commission, which concluded that a significant amount of money had been misappropriated for personal luxuries and home improvements, gym memberships, event tickets and the like. Mr. Affleck now heads a program affiliated with the Saddleback Church.

 

The number most frequently cited in press reports is $1.5 million in questionable spending. Thankfully, it appears the actual damage is somewhat less: Roughly $100,000 misspent by Mr. Affleck for his own benefit, another $200,000 or so in inappropriate spending on frivolous or questionable programs. The balance apparently represents the last three years of employee spending for any manner of things, but which CDFA did not flag after investigating. The full audit report is available at: www.avocado.org/assets/pdfs/cdfa-3.pdf

 

So what is wrong with CAC, other than having had a bad apple as CEO? The biggest problem, which the Affleck incident has highlighted (but hopefully not eclipsed) is that the organization has long had a low-accountability, free-spending culture. Growth in the avocado industry has been very good for the last few decades, and CAC deserves a share of the credit for that. It has engaged in a variety of consumer education programs, advertising and marketing efforts, as well as research on plant health and production. These programs cost a lot of money, and require a great deal of faith from the growers who fund them that they will work over the long term.

 

As seems to have been the case on Wall Street and elsewhere, the passion and confidence responsible for success gave way to arrogance and a sense of entitlement. Many growers have felt that CAC’s greatest marketing success for the past few years has been directed at the growers themselves, convincing them to continue to pony up the dollars for the Commission, even as the market for avocados begins to reach maturity. A slickly produced, self-congratulatory piece chronicling the Commission’s epic battles with import policies, angered more than a few growers, who saw that they were the only intended target of this marketing expense. So did a very expensive multimedia “war-room” at the Irvine headquarters.

 

Where does the commission go from here? I am cautiously optimistic after hearing the comments of CAC Chairman Rick Shade. While I think everyone associated with CAC would like to leave the whole mess at the doorstep of Mark Affleck, I felt that there was a real interest among Boardmembers to a “lean and mean”, accountable organization, and a sincere willingness to re-evaluate the Commission’s place in a rapidly changing market. Here’s hoping that a once great grower ally finds its footing once again.