Thanks to Wired for this preview of things to come in the world of avocados:
IT’S THE WINTER avocado harvest at the University of California’s orchard in Lindcove, and the fruit jumbled in the back of Eric Focht’s SUV are a palette of earthy tones, some rough and flecked with frosted tips, others green and smooth. The horticulturist selects three miniature fruit, bright green and rotund, which together fit easily in the palm of his hand. “We were thinking of calling it the Lunch Box,” says Mary Lu Arpaia, who oversees the avocado breeding program at the orchard. But for now it’s just an experimental variety, officially known by a string of numbers. It’s too soon to tell if “Lunch Box” will ever be released to the world.:
Chances are you haven’t eaten—or perhaps even heard of—an avocado other than the Hass, which makes up 95 percent of the US market. Beloved in guac or trendy on toast, Americans ate 2 billion pounds of them last year, more than quadrupling consumption 15 years ago. But for California avocado growers, that astounding growth is limited by climate and geography. Twenty years ago, a thin coastal corridor in Ventura and San Diego counties met nearly all of the country’s demand for the finicky, water-intensive fruit. Now the region supplies around 10 percent, overtaken by a flood of imports from Mexico and South America as California’s spigots run dry and planted acreage wanes.
The California avocado industry grew on the back of its star variety, and consumers continue to demand more. But Arpaia envisions a time when the avocado will be more like an apple, with unique varieties harvested in different seasons and across an expanded geography—perhaps even here in the stifling heat of the San Joaquin Valley, hundreds of miles north from the coastal epicenter of US production. “If we want to stay on the game as California avocado growers, we need to bring diversity back,” she says. For 70 years, the university’s breeding program has worked in close partnership with the avocado industry, which pays for the care of Lindcove’s experimental trees. But today, in these boom times for the Hass, it’s unclear if the industry is willing to gamble on anything else.
Ripe for Tonight
The Hass avocado (which rhymes with “pass,” by the way) was an accidental discovery—a seedling of unknown parentage planted in 1926 by its namesake, postman Rudolf Hass. Farmers heralded the productive and compact tree, and shoppers loved the buttery, nutty fruit. But it wasn’t perfect. “Its single disadvantage is its black color which has been associated in the minds of the public with poor quality fruits,” said a report in the 1945 yearbook of the California Avocado Society. Avocados of the time came in many shapes, sizes, and colors—and the most popular variety, called Fuerte, ripened green.
Shoppers, already skeptical of this exotic, big-seeded snack of Pleistocene megafauna, couldn’t discern unripe from rotten. So in the 1970s, the avocado industry looked to the banana for inspiration, which had perfected the art of pre-ripening fruit for the shopper. Hass fruit has the benefit of hanging for months on the tree—a kind of natural storage—and once off the tree, a carefully controlled supply chain can see the fruit darken just as it reaches grocery shelves. Black skin, to quote a 1980s marketing campaign by the California Avocado Commission, told wary shoppers that a Hass was “ripe for tonight.”
Once demand for the fruit exceeded the output of the brief California harvest season, the US opened its market to Mexican avocados—but only to the Hass, which had been individually cleared as hosts of invasive pests. Since the mid-1990s, imports have dominated the market, enabling packers to streamline year-round supply chain carefully tuned to the Hass’s preferred temperature and humidity. In years when California’s drought-stricken farms fail to produce—as the Avocado Commission expects next year, when yields are expected to plummet by half—they can easily fill the difference. “They give you something that’s very predictable,” Arpaia says.
Just as predictable, however, are the downsides of a Hass monocrop. The explosive growth of Hass acreage represents a petri dish for pests. “In history the worst case of famine and epidemics are because of monoculture” says Patricia Manosalva, a plant pathologist and biochemist at the University of California-Riverside. She points to laurel wilt, a disease spread by an invasive beetle that has felled vast stands of redbay trees, which share the Persea genus with avocados. The disease has gradually spread west from Georgia to Texas—not far from Mexico, the avocado’s ancestral homeland, and a natural germplasm of native relatives. “We may be looking at a nuclear bomb for the industry.”
The Experimental Orchard
Lindcove sits on the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley, where California’s vast expanse of farmland abruptly rises into the chalky yellow foothills of the Sierra Nevada. A northern outpost of the University of California-Riverside, the avocado breeding program here is funded by the California Avocado Commission. Tonight, the first freeze warning of the season is in effect, and workers test out a wind turbine that will blow a gentle breeze over the vulnerable trees. As we walk through the orchard, Arpaia pauses by an early victim—a drooping tree with leaves browned by cold air rushing downhill.
“The industry wasn’t really too keen about me putting a site here,” she says with a shrug. “But I’m stubborn and that’s why it’s here.” Summer in the San Joaquin Valley is even more dangerous. At around 90 degrees, the stomates on Hass leaves begin to close—any warmer and they’ll begin dropping their flowers and fruit. Temperatures at Lindcove regularly climb beyond 100 degrees…
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