California Avocado Festival is upon us, a time to celebrate Carpinteria’s favorite fruit and an opportunity to look back at how this year’s avocado season measured up for local farmers who tend the roughly 2,000 acres of avocados grown in Carpinteria Valley. It’s not a true “harvest fest” this season, because most fruit locally and throughout the state has already been picked and packed for the year. Major packinghouses have shut down, awaiting the start of next year’s harvest in spring of 2020.
Statewide volume: 210 million pounds
Avocado growers throughout the state knew that the 2019 crop would be light, even dangerously light. A decent California avocado year yields over 300 million pounds and a really big year measures over 500 million pounds. Going into the 2019 season, the California Avocado Commission estimated the statewide harvest would be 175 million pounds, so as the fruit count climbed to 210 million, it was a welcome surprise, albeit still a meager crop.
A heatwave in July 2018 is the main culprit for this season’s diminutive crop size. Fruit in inland Ventura County and parts of Santa Barbara County was decimated by the heat. Some farmers in Fillmore and Santa Paula reported only 25 percent of typical volume this year.
With avocado production, the fruit sets an entire year in advance, so weather events from 2018 impact the 2019 crop. The fires and floods in late 2017 and early 2018 also impacted the crop size, and for orchards charred by the Thomas Fire, there has been a delay in the supply of new Hass avocado trees that has set-back replanting for two to three years for some growers.
If we focus on the hyper-local picture, in Carpinteria Valley, 2019 was a stronger year than the statewide harvest, as the fruit was spared from the July 2018 heatwave and Thomas Fire at low elevations near the ocean.
2019 saw high prices for growers and consumers
The simple formula of supply and demand drove avocado prices to very favorable levels for ranchers this season. Consumers then absorbed the high value of avocados. Will Carleton, local organic avocado rancher and packer at Las Palmalitas Ranch, reported in August that a Silicon Valley grocery store was selling organic California avocados for $5 apiece––what’s good for growers isn’t always good for consumers.
As demand for avocados climbs every year across the United States and the rest of the world, producers cannot keep up and prices continue to rise. Avocado ranchers enjoyed $1.77 a pound for mid-sized avocados in early September, which is a favorable price but well short of this season’s late-June peak of $2.27 per pound. Organic California fruit, which occupies a premium niche in the market, sold for $2.62 a pound in late June. Those are average prices gleaned from major handlers of California fruit.
To put prices into perspective, in August 2018, growers of conventional avocados averaged $1.50 per pound—and most were pleased with that price. Some seasons see the price barely crack $1 per pound—despite rising comfortably above the $2 mark for several weeks like this year.
In pockets of Carpinteria Valley where volumes were relatively strong, avocado ranchers reported having a very good year, despite the statewide drop in volume.
The avocado world revolves around Mexico
The domestic avocado market cannot be discussed without mentioning Mexico, the nearly 2 billion pound elephant in the room. As of mid-September, Mexico had shipped 1.46 billion pounds of avocados into the US this year and is projected to send over 2 billion pounds for the year. Compared to a paltry 210 million pounds grown domestically (California grows nearly all of US avos), Mexico rules the market.
California producers typically wait for windows in which Mexico’s supply pipeline dips. Threatened border closures with Mexico never materialized, but there were a couple of favorable dips in the Mexican supply mid-summer. Those helped to fuel the strong prices and led to most of California’s fruit coming off the trees between April and July.
There are a couple of prevailing philosophies about avocado imports. Since Mexico is an avocado behemoth, it can supply the ever-growing international appetite for avocados. That’s music to avocado ranchers’ ears. Demand is strong and growing. However, if it’s the middle of California’s harvest season, and Mexican producers truck 70 million pounds across the border in a week, prices are pressured downward by the sudden influx. This season found a favorable window between Mexican harvests, and California producers were able to seize the opportunity.
Most people in the California avocado industry agree that Mexico’s abundance of fruit is a good thing for the domestic and global market—there are plenty of mouths to feed—but US growers find themselves at the whim of a market dictated by Mexico.
Cheerleaders find some fruit and next year’s predictions
Since the 2019 harvest is kaput, Carpinteria High School cheerleaders were left scrambling for fruit to concoct their annual “World’s Largest Vat of Guacamole,” an Avofest staple. Local ranchers like Rick Shade of Shade Farm Management were able to secure enough fruit to allow the show to go on.
According to Shade, next year’s fruit is setting after avocado trees enjoyed their own superbloom this spring. Early estimates for the 2020 harvest are sitting at around 350 million pounds, a better year than 2019, but not quite a super-bloom kind of season. Avocado trees are alternate bearing, so the pendulum usually swings from one year to the next.