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Going for the Green Through Avocados

So you’ve always dreamed of owning a little spread of your own, of living off the land, chasing rustlers and riding tall in the tractor.

Well, even if you happen to be a city slicker, it’s possible to become a rancher in North County. If, that is, you don’t mind rounding up 8-ounce pieces of green fruit.

We’re talking avocados here, those little emeralds of Southwest cuisine without which the world would be deprived of guacamole .

Avocados earned San Diego County ranchers--almost all of them in North County--$138,173,677 in 1990 (the last year for which figures are available). A lot of that money went into the hands of small growers.

If the nation looks to North County for any food crop, it is avocados. Only the flower industry is bigger around these parts.

Fallbrook, Escondido, Valley Center, Vista and Poway are smack dab in the middle of avocado country--about 60% (35,000) acres of the state’s avocado groves are centered in the area, according to Warren Currier, spokesman for the Avocado Growers Assn.

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Keep in mind that California is about the only place in the nation--one of the few in the world--that raises avocados.

In the state overall, about 6,000 growers produced 271.5 million pounds of avocados in the 12 months ended Oct. 31. This year’s crop is expected to be larger, reaching 340 million pounds.

So how can you go about getting in on the green? The good news is you don’t have to own the Big Valley to make a little guacamole yourself.

Although there are some large-scale growers, many of the avocado ranchers in North County are small-time operators--often with a hand in another business or retired from another profession.

In fact, some groves are as small as 1 or 2 acres.

The first trees were brought to the state in 1871, according to Jack Sheperd, who worked in the business 44 years and is a past president of Calavo, the largest avocado growers co-op.

According to Sheperd, Judge R. B. Ord brought the trees in from Mexico, where they were known as ahuacates . A few hobbyists began growing the trees and trying to find ways to eat the fruit.

The industry grew in small spurts until 1924, when Calavo was formed to try to develop a market for the strange fruit. Then, in the late 1920s, Edwin G. Hart, a La Habra grower, planted trees in North County. By the mid-1930s, growers here found themselves making commercial gains with the avocatito , or, as it was known on the East Coast, the alligator pear.

When the county hooked up to the Metropolitan Water District in 1944, the industry grew again on the promise of a reliable water supply. When home builders discovered North County, some of the new owners decided to grow the trees on land around their houses.

“At one time, 15, 25, 30 acres of avocados was really the bulk of the industry, but these are disappearing,” Sheperd said. “Most growers have another occupation or income. A small percentage of growers depend on avocados for a living.”

Joe Folkedale, 72, doesn’t. The retired sales manager from Fallbrook grows his own avocado and citrus trees and helps a friend grow avocados on about 3 acres.

“I make money,” he said. “It is an intensive-labor thing, and to really make it pay off you have to use your brain to figure out the best methods.”

Folkedale entered the business because it sounded like fun, but is it really?

“Yeah,” he said slowly. “It is fun.”

Still, he doesn’t necessarily advise anybody to enter the avocado business. Water and other worries make him believe that nowadays small landowners could do better growing exotic plants such as aloe vera that are low-maintenance and drought-resistant.

OK, so you’re the type not easily discouraged and want to know if you should yippee ki yo ki a your way into the avocado business? To find the answer, you’ll need a few years’ time and some money to gamble.

Phil Henry of Escondido-based Henry Avocado Co., can trace his avocado roots to an uncle who began growing the fruit in 1918. Now the family business has its own groves, manages others, packs and ships fruit--all of which means Henry has seen avocado growers come and go.

In Henry’s words, “You can do everything right and still lose money.”

It’s possible that the only thing you will have to show for your efforts is a nice tax deduction because of the losses.

First there are the rustlers. They steal thousands of pounds of avocados from North County groves each year. In past years, thieves stole up to $10 million worth of fruit around the state, although new enforcement techniques are beginning to cut into their take.

Then there are the vagaries of weather. Frost has ruined entire groves in the past, and a heat wave can cook fruit on the trees.

Don’t forget the water shortage. Last year, some grove owners were forced to cut down trees and drastically trim others.

Not scared off? Well, here’s how to get started.

You’ll need the right parcel of land. Some sources contacted for this story insisted that 1 or 2 acres just isn’t practical. Others insisted that a nice supplementary income can be had from such small plots. Nobody had any doubts about 5 acres and up.

The land will cost you at least $5,000 per acre if there are no trees. If you buy producing acreage, look at spending about $15,000 to $20,000 per acre.

Want a big ranch? High Point Realty in Escondido has a 30.4-acre spread of producing avocados selling for $423,000.

If you’re looking for land or an existing grove, call farm management companies. They usually keep an eye on land for sale and can put you in touch with agents specializing in farm property.

Next, you’ll need to determine whether or not the land is suitable. Growers like to plant trees on hilly slopes, not valley floors. Cold air sinks to the valleys away from hillsides, reducing the chances of finding avocado Popsicles some February morning. In some areas, the temperature difference between elevated hills (not too elevated, of course) and valleys can be as much as 10 degrees.

What’s your water situation? Different water districts charge different rates, often depending on how much they have to pay to pump water to your land. Often rates can be as much as $350 to $600 per acre-foot (126,000 gallons). Traditionally, agricultural users of are the first to be cut off in a water emergency, so your faith in the end of the drought should enter into your thinking. Usually, a growing tree needs about 20 gallons a day.

If you have an acre or more of hillside and you think the water will be available, then check to see how your land drains that water. Good drainage prevents tree diseases, according to Blaine Vice of the Walker-Vice Nursery in Valley Center.

Next you’ll need to amend and fertilize the soil and install irrigation equipment, including pipes, valves and meters, Vice said.

Last but not least, you’ll need some trees. Depending on the land, you can plant between 100 and 125 trees per acre. Trees will cost about $8.50 apiece.

Plan to maintain the grove with periodic fertilizing and plenty of water.

Now, wait four years.

Fruit should actually begin appearing after three years, but the amount will be insignificant. At four years, some commercially viable fruit will hang on your trees and you’ll be in business. After five or six years, the grove should start making a little money as the trees mature. A fully mature tree will yield about 50 pounds of avocados.

Assuming everything has been going great, you’ll need to find a buyer for your fruit.

Many ranchers join co-ops such as Calavo. Calavo, which represents about 40% of all avocado growers, will even truck the fruit out of your grove after it is picked and placed in Calavo bins. The co-op then produces marketing and advertising campaigns to make sure your fruit finds its way to America’s dinner table.

If you’re not really interested in handling all the details yourself, you can hire a farm manager. Firms such as Henry Avocado Co. and S. L. White Farms in Escondido will take care of your acreage from beginning to end.

Management fees charged by Henry usually fall into the $700 to $800 range per acre per year. The firm will pick your fruit for you, buy it and charge you 7 or 8 cents a pound for the service. You’ll get a check for the purchase price minus the picking charges. Many small growers go this route.

Now, and perhaps most important, how much will all this cost and how much money can you make?

“After four years, if you start from scratch, you could easily have $20,000 per acre (including land) into it,” said Currier of the Avocado Growers Assn. It costs about $3,500 to $4,000 a year to maintain and harvest an acre of avocados, he said.

According to Currier, “an extremely good” grower might get 15,000 pounds per acre, but the average for the state is more like 5,500 pounds.

Fallbrook grove owner Folkedale says the profit from every 60 or 70 avocado trees equals about $3,000 per year after expenses, not including taxes.

The income ultimately depends on how much avocados are fetching at the wholesale level. The range, as any shopper can tell you, can be enormous.

According to a recent Avocado Greensheet, the weekly report of the California Avocado Commission, Hass avocados were selling for about $1 per pound. Two weeks before, they were selling for about $1.30 per pound. The price for all varieties of avocados in 1991 averaged just over 71 cents per pound, down from $1.14 in 1990.

The four-year trend for avocados has been positive, with high prices for most growers. Growers, that is, who have crops. Some were frozen out by frosts. Others suffered losses due to the drought.

If you had a crop, you probably would have made money, but there is simply no telling what will happen from one year to the next.

“Times are always tough for the avocado grower,” Sheperd said. “I have never heard anything but complaints about how tough it is. When it gets up on its feet, more people come into the business. . . . As soon as these people see others making money, more and more come in and production increases and the market goes down until we can create additional demand.”

The hit-and-miss quality of growing avocados is one reason Sheperd thinks we may see the end of the industry in North County in our lifetime.

Why grow, many reason, when you can sell the land to a developer? In fact, the county has seen a net decrease in total acreage during the past few years--a 5,000-acre drop just from 1990 to 1991.

“I can see the day when there won’t be any room to grow them,” Sheperd said. “The land will be full of houses. That prospect scares the hell out of me. There will be continuing pressure from urban development. . . . That may be foolish to say, because the industry has developed when people said it wouldn’t, but the avocado tree enjoys the same climate the human does--and the avocado will come out the loser.”

Additional information on growing avocados is available from farm management companies or commercial nurseries in North County and from the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, 698-2845.


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