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Second-generation farmer finds innovation at the heart of industry’s survival

Tom Pfingsten

Special to the Village News

It had been two weeks since the first day of spring, and there was still fruit on the trees, which was odd. The orchard had been picked almost a month ago, yet there they hung – clusters of unmistakable green gold, the telltale Hass texture visible from 20 feet away.

Robert Jackson stopped mid-sentence when he saw them, and then forgot what he’d been saying when thick clusters of avocado blossoms distracted him further. He had already stopped the car, elbow slung out the window, and now he smiled.

“It’s going to be a monster set,” he said.

Welcome to Ridge Creek Ranch, Jackson’s place in the hills between Bonsall and Valley Center – a 50-acre organic avocado orchard, one of four that he owns in the Fallbrook area, and from the looks of it, an agricultural success story in the making.

By “set,” Jackson meant that the trees, only three years old this spring, would be laden with avocados in early 2017. I suppose farmers are always thinking a season or even a year ahead, but that’s especially true of Fallbrook’s avocado growers, who are scrapping their way back to profitability after a devastating series of rate hikes that, by Jackson’s account, have tripled the cost of water over roughly a decade.

On this sunny morning two weeks ago, many of Jackson’s trees appeared to have more flowers than leaves, and for a farmer who counts profit in pounds, a robust fruit set is the best possible news.

But more than profit is at stake for Jackson, a second-generation farmer who, like his father, grows avocados as a second profession. Fred Jackson was a neurosurgeon; Robert Jackson is an attorney. The father had a hand in putting Fallbrook on the map as avocado capital of the world, and now his son is doing everything he can to keep the industry alive.

A rough road for farmers

In the fall of 2007, around the time when wildfires tore through North County, water officials across Southern California were delivering highly unpopular news: farmers would be required to cut back their irrigation by 30 percent the following year. Soon thereafter, a key discount that farmers had enjoyed – and which had enabled Fallbrook’s avocado industry to thrive – would be phased out.

Between the outcry of distraught farmers and the sight of groves going dry – not to mention the 1,700 acres of trees that had just burned, or the thousands more devastated by frost a year earlier –it was natural to despair for the future of the community’s signature product.

But there were also wise voices, the grove managers and agriculture advisors who said Fallbrook didn’t need to stop growing avocados. The industry would have no choice but to adapt, they said, but it would go on.

What was needed, more than anything, were growers willing to try new things.

When Jackson sees all of the local groves that have been left to dry up, he can’t help but feel melancholy: “It’s a shame, because they’ll never come back,” he said. “It’s very difficult for someone to make the economic decision to invest in new avocado planting. There’s the preparation, irrigation, and then you’ve got to wait, typically, for three years before you get any return on your investment. Property here is just too valuable, too expensive, to justify avocados.”

Jackson is easy going and amiable. He is also keen. He bought this land four years ago from a group of doctors that apparently lacked the interest or wherewithal to persevere in the avocado industry. Jackson had been in the business since 2009, when he bought his first local grove, and in this land he saw massive opportunity. Too steep to build very many houses, it would always be perfect for growing avocados.

The (new) keys to success

In the months after the 2007 wildfires, Jackson worked hard to become lead liaison counsel in the resulting litigation, ultimately representing some 700 victims of the Witch Creek, Rancho Guejito and Rice fires. He has parlayed that experience into four national-level wildfire cases currently under way.

A large man with a ruddy complexion and friendly demeanor, Jackson traversed narrow dirt trails through the grove in his SUV while I peppered him with questions about how to make it as an avocado grower in post-water-crisis Southern California.

He rattled off four keys to success: bees, density, organic practices and microclimate.

The last one can’t be helped – “You’re stuck with your microclimate,” and this ranch has the ideal combination of features, from soil to sun exposure, he said – but the other three should be at the top of every grower’s list.

With about 100 beehives in the orchard, Jackson stopped frequently to admire the pollinators humming around the flowers on every tree. He figures he gets 10 to 20 percent more fruit thanks to better pollination rates.

And, by growing organically, growers enjoy a 40 to 50 percent premium on the price of fruit, Jackson told me. The downside of organic growing, which doesn’t allow for spraying Roundup to control weeds, is an unsightly blanket of imposers.

Stooping to heave one out of the soft dirt, he added, “Once you’re a farmer, you can never walk by a weed without pulling it up.”

Finally, there is the density of trees—a much-touted solution to the water crisis that has helped push yields far beyond what was once thought of as normal.

It’s easy to get lost in the numbers, so here’s a primer: The California Avocado Commission puts the average yield in a conventional avocado orchard – managed the old way, by spacing trees far apart and letting them grow to 30 feet or taller – at 8,000 to 10,000 pounds per acre.

Avocado trees mature in seven to 10 years, and Jackson’s Hass trees, only three years old, yielded 6,000 pounds per acre earlier this year. In 2017, he’s looking at 10,000 to 12,000 pounds – above the commission’s average from essentially adolescent trees.

Elsewhere on the ranch, he’s in the process of planting dozens of acres of Reed avocados in a high-density grid – 10 feet apart in seven-foot rows, rather than the standard 20-by-20 grid.

“So instead of 100 trees per acre, I put in about 350 to 400 trees,” he told me. “I use a little bit more water – 20 or 30 percent more – but I get a lot more fruit coming out of here.”

Ultimately, he hopes to harvest at least triple the avocado commission’s average every year, which would make Ridge Creek Ranch a highly profitable orchard.

All of this is good news for growers hoping for a way forward – and for those of us who happen to appreciate Fallbrook’s avocado industry, both for its history and its contributions to the community.

In the years to come, thousands of tons of organic avocados will be hauled out of Ridge Creek Ranch, and yet, here was Jackson, stopping his Escalade to pick up two ripe pieces of fruit that had tumbled onto the path from somewhere above.

He climbed back in, handed them to me and said, “Here’s your guacamole for the week.”


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