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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Avocado Growers Are Seeing Green as Harvests Burgeon

Agriculture: Favorable conditions in the county are resulting in increased yields, which should mean lower prices for guacamole lovers.

April 15, 2001|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blessed by near-perfect conditions, Ventura County avocado growers say they are harvesting their biggest crops in years, a boom that is resulting in lower prices at the grocery store and helping to forge new markets for the pear-shaped fruit.

With the picking season shifting into high gear in preparation for guacamole-rich Cinco de Mayo celebrations, local growers say they are ready to help meet the demand for as many as 50 million avocados.

Production had been hurt in recent years by frigid temperatures and infestations of crop-destroying pests.

But warm weather as the fruit was coming into bloom last spring, followed by nourishing rains earlier this year, has boosted yields statewide, resulting in what promises to be the most productive season in nearly a decade.

"We're off to an awesome start," said Steve Barnard, president of Oxnard-based Mission Produce.

Production is up more than 25% over last year at the avocado packinghouse, where each week up to 2 million pounds of the fruit rumbles down the assembly lines.

It is unlikely, however, that this will be a record season.

That came in the 1992-93 season, when California growers plucked 570 million pounds of the fruit. Production is expected to exceed 400 million pounds this season--80 million more than last year and the highest volume since the record.

In Ventura County this season, growers are expected to produce 81 million pounds of the fruit on 14,200 acres--up 12 million pounds from last season, when avocados were the county's sixth-largest cash crop.

The increase in supply will result in a corresponding drop in price--and in revenue, analysts predict.

Last year, California growers reported record revenue of $339 million. Ventura County, the second-largest producer in the nation behind San Diego County, generated about one-fifth of that amount.

The California Avocado Commission projects revenue this season to hover around $300 million.

That is good news for consumers, who this season are able to find avocados costing anywhere from 70 cents to $1 apiece. Prices peaked at nearly $2 last season.

But growers say it's also good news for the industry, noting that lower prices on supermarket shelves could help bring new avocado lovers into the fold.

"Any time consumers find the fruit more affordable, it helps build the market and gets avocados into places where they traditionally haven't been," said Santa Paula grower Richard Pidduck.

Not all the news on the avocado front is good, however.

Like farmers everywhere, avocado growers continue to battle escalating production costs, increased competition from importers and new pests.

Growers are expressing increased concern about a new rule under consideration by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would further boost foreign competition and, many believe, increase the threat of infestations. The USDA is studying a proposal to allow Mexican growers to expand their presence in the domestic market.

Currently, the Mexicans are allowed to market their avocados between November and February to a 19-state Northeastern region. However, the foreign growers want to tack on two months and 12 states, allowing Mexican avocados to be sold as far west as Colorado.

Tom Bellamore, senior vice president for the California Avocado Commission, said domestic growers are worried about the increased competition.

But he said they are more worried about potential pest problems, noting that the Mexican imports were only allowed into the Northeast during the winter because cold weather would kill any bugs that happened to hitch a ride.

"Our opposition is strictly built around the science," said Bellamore, who expects the USDA to make a ruling this summer. "From our growers' perspective, they know that if there is an introduction of a new pest, it could in a very short period of time have a devastating impact on them."

For now, growers are ready to leave the question of Mexican imports to federal rule-makers and instead focus their attention on a celebration of Mexican heritage.

At Bob Pinkerton's Santa Paula ranch, workers are scrambling to pull fruit hanging heavy on trees in time for Cinco de Mayo. The Mexican holiday generates the highest level of avocado consumption of the year.

"This is definitely the best yield we've had over the last two years," said Pinkerton, who is also president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. "But you never sit back and say, 'Wow, this is great.' You've always got to keep working at it."

Santa Paula rancher Ben Curtis, 70, is doing just that. Unlike his fellow growers, Curtis won't start picking in earnest until late summer.

That is because a bitter freeze ravaged his Timer Canyon orchard a decade ago, throwing his trees into a cycle in which they bloom later than most. So for now, he is content to watch as the emerald fruit swells on the branches, growing bigger and more valuable every week.

"I've stayed on that cycle for about 10 years, and as a result I've been holding my fruit later than most," said Curtis, who has been farming avocados for more than 40 years. "I don't mind, though. I like the idea of keeping them as long as I can so they get bigger and sell for more."

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