Whether spread on toast or infused in beer, avocados are everywhere. Demand in recent years has soared throughout California and the United States. But California’s crop size in 2017 has been remarkably small. Though the season is not over, avocado buffs expect this year’s harvest to be about half of last year’s 400 million pounds.
The price, therefore, has shot up. In the last year, the Sheriff’s rural crime unit received reports of avocado theft worth tens of thousands of dollars.
“This is really unusual for us,” said Carpinteria farmer Scott Van Der Kar. He explained the five-year drought has “led to the decline we see right now.” In past years, each of his trees yielded bags of avocados. This year, he got far fewer.
Avocado trees, by their nature, are “alternate bearing,” meaning they produce heavy volumes one year and lighter volumes the next, explained California Avocado Commission President Tom Bellamore.
But the drought has certainly made things worse. In the last two years, Santa Barbara County avocado fields were cut by about 1,500 acres — nearly 25 percent. Growers were forced to stump trees. The state mandated water reductions. Water districts increased rates (with some exceptions for agriculture).
By one area farmer’s calculation, one avocado requires 10 gallons of water. “They want as much water as you can give them,” said Craig Kendrick, who runs Catlin Ranch in Carpinteria. He recently drilled a new water well to irrigate his 30 acres. Otherwise, he said, he couldn’t afford to buy the water.
With the supply short, basic economics says the prices go up. At the downtown Santa Barbara farmers’ market last weekend, avocados sold for anywhere from $1 to $3 apiece. At area grocery stores, they are about 50 cents more than they were in recent years.
Avocado’s higher value contributed to a $16 million increase — nearly 25 percent — in gross production value in Santa Barbara County. Most of the 350 avocado growers in the county are located in Carpinteria, with a few in Goleta, where the marine layer and morning dew create perfect conditions. (An avocado farm was planted in Santa Maria, but it will not produce fruit for years.)
About a year ago, the rural investigator for the Sheriff’s Office began to receive reports of large-scale theft on avocado farms. Thieves are known to enter orchards at night or in the early morning hours with backpacks or picking bags. Last August, Detective John McCarthy arrested a man — who was a picker — for stealing an estimated tens of thousands of dollars from a Carpinteria farm. He was caught with hundreds of dollars worth of avocados. He was prosecuted and sentenced to probation, McCarthy said.
This year, there have been fewer reports of theft because the crop size was smaller and the harvest was shorter, McCarthy said. Still, the theft reports this year have been “significant.”
In the U.S., California, known for the Haas variety, grows the most avocados. Imports from Mexico and Peru are increasingly significant, expanding competition.
“In California, we just fit in where we can,” Van Der Kar said. Van Der Kar doubted California’s acreage would ever fully come back. It takes five years to grow a fruit-bearing avocado tree.
Mexico’s crop is fairly stable year-round. The country’s harvest starts in late August and September, when consumers can expect to see lower prices at the market.
The good news is next year’s crop in California is expected to be plentiful. Currently the size of a golf ball, the rock-hard fruit grow on the same trees as the ripe ones. The trees benefited some from this winter’s rain, but farmers said it was not nearly enough.
In any case, the avocado beer sold year-round at Island Brewing Company in Carpinteria does not depend on the harvest: The brewery’s Avocado Honey Ale is not made with the fruit itself, but with honey pollinated in avocado orchards. “We’d be pretty upset if our run of avocado honey were to dry up,” owner Paul Wright said. “We check with our honey producer to make sure we have enough.”