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There'll be a dip in avocados

A shortfall in the California crop could show up in U.S. prices by late spring.

December 26, 2008|Jerry Hirsch

Holy guacamole! An avocado shortage is looming next spring.

California farmers expect to harvest the smallest avocado crop since 1990 and possibly even as far back as 1980. Hot weather in June, at just the wrong point in the growing season, is responsible for the shortfall.

Luckily for football fans, there is still plenty of the green-fleshed fruit -- the basic ingredient of guacamole -- to last well beyond the bowl season, experts say. But by Cinco de Mayo, shoppers could be paying more.

The crunch will come in late spring and early summer, when imports from Mexico and Chile are at their lowest production levels.

Prices shouldn't explode, but they'll creep into the higher range of what consumers expect, said Wayne Brydon, field service manager for the California Avocado Commission, based in Irvine.

"Retailers see avocados as a prime produce item that already has good margins, and they probably won't want to raise the price far up," he said, but "they have some room to maneuver."

Americans eat about 3 pounds of avocado per capita per year, with people in the West and Southwest eating more than average.

The shortage will be more pronounced in guacamole-crazy Texas and the eastern half of the nation because California growers will favor longtime customers in Pacific coastal states, Arizona and Nevada, Brydon said.

Yet even during that three-month period of May to July when California avocados are king, there still could be enough competition from beyond our borders to help regulate prices, said Avi Crane, owner of Prime Produce International, an avocado-packing house in Orange.

Avocados in Mexico are grown at different elevations and latitudes, making the fruit almost a year-round crop and giving farmers there a degree of flexibility over when they have fruit to sell, said Ben Faber, a UC Cooperative Extension avocado expert.

"Mexico is so huge that if they see good prices here, they will divert fruit up here to capture those higher prices. And that drives up prices in Mexico too, so it is very clever," Faber said.

Of course, that could irritate Mexican consumers by increasing the price and reducing the availability of avocados there.

Mexico, the world's largest grower of avocados, exported about one-third of its crop to the United States this year and is expected to send an additional 500 million pounds of the fruit north next year, Brydon said.

Chile, another large grower, is expected to ship about 180 million pounds to the U.S. next year, mostly after August. The Dominican Republic is a small but growing player in the U.S. avocado market.

Americans buy almost 1 billion pounds of avocados annually, and the demand is growing. "Twenty years ago, basically most avocados were eaten in California, Arizona and Texas. Now they eat them in Wisconsin," Faber said.

Crane said the local demand "is so strong that you could probably sell the entire California crop in just the five-county Southern California metropolitan area."

California growers are expected to produce about 210 million pounds of avocados in 2009. That's about a third less than this year's crop and only about half of what farmers had hoped for, Brydon said.

"The problem is that it was hot and dry at just the wrong time for avocados," Brydon said.

The state's avocado regions, which stretch from San Diego County to San Luis Obispo County, suffered five to seven consecutive days of 100-degree weather in June, which damaged the fruit that was just beginning to mature on the trees, he said.

This will be the third year in a row that Jim Finch, an avocado farmer near Ventura, has a small crop. "We lost our fruit in the '07 crop and our buds for the '08 crop to the freeze in January 2007, and now we have a very light 2009 crop," he said.

The smaller crop might push prices higher for farmers, but Finch is worried about what retailers might charge during the coming year.

"If people have to pay $2 for an avocado in this type of economy, they might decide not to buy it," Finch said.

California is by far the largest producer of avocados in the U.S., supplying 85% to 90% of what is grown domestically. Florida also grows avocados. California is home to 6,000 growers, who produced 330 million pounds last year with a value of $330 million.

The state is responsible for development of the premium Hass -- rhymes with "pass" -- variety of avocado.

Although archaeologists have found evidence that avocados were cultivated in Mexico as early as 500 BC, the coveted Hass is traced to a single tree growing in the La Habra backyard of Rudolph Hass in the 1920s. That tree is the genetic origin of every Hass avocado worldwide.

The tree succumbed to root rot in 2002. The Avocado Commission reports that its wood is in storage in a Ventura nursery awaiting a decision on a memorial to what has become known as the Hass Mother Tree.

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

What's grown in California

About 500 kinds of avocados exist worldwide, but only seven varieties are grown commercially in California, says the California Avocado Commission. Most people are familiar with the dark-skinned Hass, which accounts for about 95% of the total California crop.

The word "avocado" comes from the Aztec word for testicle, and some historians believe the pear-shaped fruit was considered a pre-Columbian aphrodisiac.

OTHER VARIETIES

Fuerte is harvested late fall through spring. The commission says the green-skinned Fuerte is the original high-quality California avocado.

Gwen is similar in appearance, taste and texture to Hass but is slightly larger.

Lamb Hass is a California summer variety similar to Hass but larger. It is a new variety.

Pinkerton is noted for smaller seeds.

Reed is a summertime variety that is large and round instead of the traditional pear shape.

Zutano is available September through early winter. It is notable for its shiny, yellow-green skin.

-- Jerry Hirsch

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