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With larger crop, California avocado harvest will be in good volume by mid-March

Hass avocados have generally been alternate bearing, so it is a bit unusual to have two large-volume crop years in a row. But last year's California avocado crop came in at about 460 million pounds, a substantial increase over the prior year, and an even larger crop is anticipated this year.

Because of the larger crop, shippers are planning to ramp up volume earlier in the season than they did last year in an effort to create a more even flow of fruit throughout the season.011-CalAvos-CropCalifornia Hass avocado groves such as this one in Ventura County have set a large crop in 2013, for the second season in a row. The crop is even larger than last year, and handlers are looking to start moving volume by mid-March. (Photo by Rand Green)

"We are looking forward to a really good year. We've got a lot of fruit to work with, even more than we had last year, which is great," said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission in Irvine, CA.

The commission's projection for the 2013 California avocado crop is 515 million pounds for all varieties, of which about 500 million pounds will be the Hass variety, 12 million pounds will be the Lamb Hass variety, which runs from mid-summer to late fall, and the remainder will be a mix of minor varieties such as Bacon, Zutano and Pinkerton.

"It is really nice to have back-to-back crop years with good volume," Ms. DeLyser said. It is thought to be the result of some deliberate cultural practices during a big-crop year that enhance the set of the following year's crop. "We are hoping that we are onto something with cultural practices that allow consistent volume year to year," she said.

One of those practices is to get a percentage of the fruit off of the tree early in the season, before the blossoms that produce next year's fruit are formed, thus giving the tree more energy to put into setting a crop. "We have seen in recent years that there is a real benefit" to doing so, Ms. DeLyser said.

There are other benefits to shifting more of the harvest toward the front end, one of which is to spread labor needs more evenly throughout the season and minimize peak-season concerns over labor availability.

The California avocado harvest can actually start as early as mid-December, and years ago, when California Hass dominated the U.S. avocado market, it was common to start that early. Now with heavy volumes from Mexico — and Chile in the market during the winter — there is pressure to delay the harvest later into the spring in hope of getting better prices. But with this year's larger crop, such a strategy would likely backfire, as the industry could find itself with more fruit than the market could handle at peak season and too much fruit left at the end of the season when the competition again ramps up.

"The past few years, we have kind of held on until an April start," Ms. DeLyser said. But this year, "we are looking at good volumes by mid-March" and then running well into October or even November.

Some fruit was already being harvested in February, and some California avocados were even in the marketplace for a Super Bowl promotion. But the benefits of not starting earlier than that are seen in the quality of the fruit. "With other sources of supply in the marketplace," Ms. DeLyser said, the California industry is able to "hone in on when the eating quality is at its best. The confidence in the quality of the fruit and the consistency in that quality and the fact that people can rely on it really inures to the benefit of California avocados."

 "It is good that the growers are getting started in March to plan out the season and make sure we can get the fruit off the trees in a good fashion throughout the entire season," said Doug Meyer, vice president of sales and marketing at West Pak Avocado Inc. in Murietta, CA, Feb. 19. "We are working with our California growers on the early-season cultural practices" and focusing on "really getting going here in March. We feel the benefit there is to get a foothold in the marketplace early in the season and also try to avoid having a later-season labor crunch" — and of course to have a more manageable volume throughout the season.

"Right now we are trying to get a little bit of fruit off" of some of the trees that are most heavily set, said Rob Wedin, vice president of fresh sales and marketing at Calavo Growers Inc. in Sana Paula, CA, Feb. 19. "By the 11th of March, we will be about six times the volume that we are this week. That is how quickly it starts to increase. By the end of March, more than 30 percent of our volume will be coming out of California," and from there "it will keep increasing, and the sizes will keep getting better and better too."

As is typical of a large crop, sizes tend to be on the smaller side early on. Currently, growers are size picking, taking the largest fruit off first to help the remaining fruit size.

With the larger crop, “we do think that most growers are going to start to harvest a little more fruit in March and April so that we don't have quite the burden that we had last year in June, July and August," said Bob Lucy, president of Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc. in Fallbrook, CA, Feb. 19. "The [California] Avocado Commission is going to have more programs that are geared a little bit more front end" for customers who choose to get going early. The big push will still be around Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, "but if a retailer or somebody wants to do something in March and April, CAC is going to be there with them. We are also going to really make an attempt to stake out some ground [for California avocados] for Cinco de Mayo" in the western part of the country.

"We will see good volumes by mid-March," said Rankin McDaniel, president of McDaniel Fruit Co. in Fallbrook, CA, Feb. 21. "This will tie in with the California industry's promotional efforts." Most of those programs will be launched this year by the first of April, he said.

"CAC continues to do a great job of promoting, and I think have made a concerted effort to get out to all the handlers and stay in contact with growers, and to help move a larger crop than last year efficiently this year," said Ron Araiza, director of sales for Mission Produce Inc. in Oxnard, CA, Feb. 20.

"All the marketing groups, and for the most part, all of the shippers and handlers, are doing a great job marketing the product," he said. "They have set aside adequate funds to help grow the commodity, and I think we are going to see continued growth."