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Newsletter: The quest for a more perfect California avocado

Tito’s Tacos avocados
These avocados to make guacamole are prepared at Tito’s Tacos in Culver City.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, July 26, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

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The long road to a more perfect avocado certainly didn’t begin in Parlier, Calif. But the tiny agricultural town 30 minutes southeast of Fresno is where a U.S. Department of Agriculture flavor scientist has been pushing samples through sliding doors into evaluation booths, for a panel of tasters to individually consider.

The goal of the study is to figure out how people describe the flavor of a good avocado and what components in the fruit contribute to that perceived flavor, said Mary Lu Arpaia, a leading avocado researcher and director of UC Riverside’s avocado breeding program.

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Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, the nine trained participants spend an hour evaluating avocado samples in a University of California sensory science building specifically designed for testing like this, just down the street from an agricultural research service division of the USDA.

The tasters are paid $10 an hour, plus all that free avocado, and their ranks include a few retired schoolteachers and an IT professional. They’re given no more than three avocado samples during each session to avoid burnout, and answer around 14 questions about each sample.

Their analysis is concentrated on two varieties of avocado, Hass and GEM.

The black-skinned Hass variety (rhymes with “class”) is the current gold standard on the market, and accounts for 95% of avocados consumed in the United States. The GEM is a newer species produced out of Arpaia’s lab at UC Riverside, aimed to be better adapted to grow in the San Joaquin Valley, which — if successful — could potentially mean California avocados produced more months of the year. (California avocados are typically in season from spring to late summer or early fall, with production largely limited to coastal Southern California. They account for roughly 90% of all U.S.-produced avocados, but just a fraction of the overall avocados consumed across the country.)

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Year-round avocado dishes may dominate your Instagram feed, yet its current nationwide post-seasonal ubiquity is heavily dependent on a delicate balance of geopolitics. But first, let’s backtrack.

Avocados have been cultivated in what is now Mexico and Central America since 500 B.C. The California avocado industry began in earnest around 1915, about a decade before a California postman accidentally originated the Hass avocado in his La Habra Heights backyard.

When the North American Free Trade Agreement was ratified in 1994, the vast majority of avocados consumed in the U.S. were still California grown, and therefore limited to a short seasonal window. NAFTA opened the door for mass avocado importation from Mexico, but it wasn’t until 1997 that an eight-decade ban on importing the fruit from Mexico into the U.S. was lifted.

U.S. avocado consumption has generally trended upward since 1970, but the post-NAFTA influx of access to a year-round supply — coupled with broader culinary and health trends, along with a fast-growing Latino population across the country, and their cultural influence — fueled explosive growth among American consumers. (A 1990s-era concerted effort by avocado marketers to integrate guacamole into the Super Bowl experience is also said to have played a crucial role in boosting sales.)

California still overwhelmingly dominates U.S. avocado production, but imports now account for roughly 85% of all avocados consumed in the U.S., with the vast majority of those coming from Mexico.

California has had a smaller-than-average crop this year, making the country more reliant on Mexican avocados, and prices spiked dramatically in April after President Trump threatened to close the border. Due to a confluence of factors, prices remain so high that some L.A. taqueros have resorted to providing a faux-guacamole that substitutes Mexican squash for the avocados, as Javier Cabral recently reported for L.A. Taco.

The quest to cultivate an avocado that can consistently bear fruit year-round in California has long been a kind of the Holy Grail for horticultural researchers like Arpaia, but it takes on new urgency with the fate of NAFTA potentially hanging in the balance.

Meanwhile, the panel of Central Valley tasters who meet twice a week in Parlier for the USDA’s research have become true avocado evangelists. The group has become friends through the yearlong process, and recently gathered for an avocado-themed potluck, complete with homemade avocado ice cream, avocado cream pie and avocado deviled eggs.

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And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

TOP STORIES

California has reached a climate deal with automakers, spurning President Trump. Four major automakers — Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW — made an agreement with California air regulators to gradually increase fuel efficiency standards. The deal presents a direct challenge to the Trump administration’s plans, expected to be formally announced later this summer, to roll back tougher tailpipe pollution standards put in place under President Obama. Los Angeles Times

A 26-year-old who embarked on a shooting rampage that left four dead — beginning with his own family and ending with a stranger on a bus — was arrested Thursday afternoon after an hours-long manhunt that cast a shadow of fear across the sweltering San Fernando Valley, police said. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

L.A. book events this week: Meet authors with deep roots to California’s past and present. Los Angeles Times

FBI raids and a DWP scandal pose a political threat to Mike Feuer, L.A.’s ambitious city attorney. Feuer has been seen as a likely candidate for mayor in 2022, when Mayor Eric Garcetti will be forced out by term limits. Los Angeles Times

Nineties teen heartthrob to labor leader? Jonathan Taylor Thomas is running for a seat on the SAG-AFTRA national board. Page Six

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Add the pepperoni, hold the human interaction: Pizza Hut is testing a carry-out locker system on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Los Angeles Daily News

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Latinos, Asian Americans and women are underrepresented among applicants for the 2020 commission that will draw new California political districts. Some advocacy groups are asking for an extension in the deadline so that the disparities can be addressed. Sacramento Bee

CRIME AND COURTS

Sixteen Camp Pendleton Marines were arrested on suspicion of various illegal activities ranging from human smuggling to drug-related offenses. Los Angeles Times

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

A mental health stigma persists among Fresno’s Southeast Asian community. This center wants to help. Fresno Bee

A heat wave will push Bay Area temperatures into the triple digits this weekend. San Francisco Chronicle

But those Bay Area highs will probably seem mild when compared to the Central Valley, where temperatures are expected to peak at 108 on Sunday. Fresno Bee

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Police officers typically wear western garb to the California Rodeo Salinas, but this year two officers donned traditional Mexican charro suits as a means of representing and honoring the community they serve. The city of Salinas is more than three-quarters Latino. Salinas Californian

A look at the ongoing battle over minimum wage in the Bay Area city of Emeryville, which has the highest minimum wage in the nation. Wall Street Journal

Our nation’s 36th president, Lyndon B. Johnson, once worked as an elevator operator in San Bernardino. San Bernardino Sun

Why isn’t local seafood a bigger deal in the Bay Area? KQED

Smaller local fairs can land performers like Cardi B, so why can’t the California State Fair book marquee musical acts? (For reference, the Plain White T’s headlined its opening day, which would be a giant deal if this was 2007 and your name was Delilah). Sacramento Bee

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 88. San Diego: sunny, 80. San Francisco: sunny, 68. San Jose: sunny, 85. Sacramento: sunny, 96. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

“There are strangers above me, below me and all around me and we are all strange in this place of recent invention.”
Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, “The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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