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State growers eye pause to Mexican avocado imports

With the supply of Mexican avocados tapering off and prices rising, California growers of the buttery fruit have ramped up harvest, hoping to send the bulk of their crop to the market while it remains strong.

They may see prices jump even higher if the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not immediately resume full inspections of avocados from the Mexican state of Michoacan, the global epicenter of avocado production.

U.S. government officials confirmed late last week that USDA inspectors will “gradually” return to packing plants in Michoacan after two inspectors were attacked and temporarily detained while doing their jobs earlier this month.

The incident halted inspections of Mexican avocados and mangos, though it did not stop fruit exports already in transit. Avocados from the state of Jalisco also are not affected.

Officials said more work is needed to ensure the safety of U.S. inspectors before reaching full operations.

“I think there’s a lot of excitement or interest in seeing what is going to happen,” Santa Barbara County grower Russell Doty said.

Even though the flow of Mexican avocados has slowed this time of year, the world’s leading producer can still ship considerable volumes.

In June 2023, Mexico exported more than 200 million pounds of avocados to the U.S., according to USDA. At its peak last year, Mexican avocado shipments reached nearly 300 million pounds during the month of March. That’s more than California’s entire 2023 crop of 237 million pounds, according to the California Avocado Commission.

California avocado acreage stood at 52,204 in 2022, with Ventura, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Riverside and San Luis Obispo being the state’s largest producers, respectively.

Though the Golden State produces nearly 90% of U.S.-grown avocados, it represents less than 10% of what’s on the U.S. market, which is dominated by Mexico. Last year, the U.S. imported a record 2.78 billion pounds of fresh avocados, with 89% coming from Mexico. Peru, the Dominican Republic, Chile and Colombia supplied the rest.

This year, California is expected to produce more than 250 million pounds of avocados, the commission estimated. About 60% of the crop has been harvested, with the remaining fruit still sizing on trees, the commission reported last week. Harvest began in January and is expected to run through September, with peak volumes from April through July.

The commission declined to comment on the potential market impact of the disrupted imports of Michoacan avocados.

Doty said he has already seen an uptick in price, with quotes last week as high as $1.90 to $2.10 a pound compared to $1.75 to $1.80 before the pause. He said he thinks packinghouses are taking a wait-and-see approach, as “they don’t want to get out over their skis” by offering too high a price before knowing how long the situation will last.

USDA said it is “committed to resuming inspections of avocados and mangos in Michoacan as swiftly as possible,” though federal officials did not provide details on when that will be.

A threat to a USDA plant inspector in 2022 led the U.S. to suspend avocado imports from Michoacan for about a week. An import ban in December 2020 involving avocados from one region in Michoacan lasted for a month after an armed group burned avocado shipments.

For the longer import ban, Doty said he remembers hiring a second harvest crew that year so he could pick twice the amount of fruit to take advantage of the rising market. But with the current situation, he said the speculation is that the disruption will not last as long and that trying to hire another crew may not be beneficial.

He described his crop as small in volume but with big-sized fruit. He attributed the smaller crop to cool weather in the spring of 2023, which did not allow much fruit to set. In contrast, conditions this past spring were more favorable, producing “a very nice set of fruit.” He began picking in April and said he expects to finish by the end of July.

San Diego County grower Enrico Ferro described his crop as “a decent size” and said he considers himself lucky, noting a lot of growers in his region are struggling with lower yields this year due to poor fruit set last year. In addition to not getting enough warm and sunny days in March and April of 2023 to set the fruit, he said trees also did not pollinate very well due to a lack of wind during bloom.

Like Doty, Ferro started harvesting in April, picking his largest fruit first to allow the rest of the crop to size. He usually finishes his season by July after two picks. But with a lot of smaller fruit this year, he said he plans to stretch his season into August for a third pick to allow more fruit to size.

“We’re having an unusual year where it’s June, and we still have bloom and very foggy mornings,” Ferro said. “That pushes us a little farther into the year.”

Even so, he said he’s “very grateful” for the amount of rain the region received the past two years, as “it really helps to clean all the salts out of the soil.”

“With the cost of water being so high, it’s like money falling out of the sky,” Ferro said.

That the market has improved this year is another plus, he said, noting how prices last year dropped to around $1 a pound. When prices finally did move up in July, “a lot of people were already done harvesting,” he said.

San Diego County farmers who don’t have access to groundwater and must buy higher-priced municipal water may need at least $1.50 a pound to break even, Ferro estimated. With the price of water set to increase by another 20%, he said, “there’s worry that that’s going to really make it impossible (for farms) to keep going.”

For Santa Barbara County’s Doty, who does have his own groundwater, $1.30 a pound can still be profitable, he said.

With a “good crop still on the trees,” Ferro said he’s encouraged by the price increase, especially if Michoacan avocados continue to be held up. Improved bloom conditions this year should deliver a large crop for next year, he said.

“After 20 years of being here,” he said, “things are finally looking up.”

Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].

Permission to use this article is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.


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