From nearly every hilltop in Fallbrook, Escondido, or Vista they can be seen: grove after grove of avocado trees, like rows of leafy green towers stretching away into the distance. This peculiar green fruit from the jungles of Central America was first introduced into San Diego’s North County in 1892 by W.W. Prior, on a spot near Escondido now paved over with the El Norte Parkway. That first tree eventually reached a girth of six feet and a height of nearly fifty. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that the area’s loose, sandy soil and mild year-round climate were widely recognized as ideal for growing avocados. From that time on growers, aided by the availability of inexpensive labor (much of it supplied by Mexicans without legal status), planted the trees in ever-increasing numbers, and today the North County harbors one of the highest concentrations of avocados found anywhere in the world.
Roughly forty percent of the avocados sold in the United States last year were grown in San Diego County; in pounds this translates to about 105 million. The last few years have brought record high yields, and the county’s total crop is expected to more than double by the early 1980s. Nearly 20,000 acres of avocado trees are now cultivated in San Diego County alone. Yet in spite of the immense increase in production, avocado prices locally have decreased very little, and in many cases have actually climbed to new highs.
In theory, the abundance of avocados in recent years should have caused prices to fall. But while the number of avocados available has been increasing rapidly, the demand for them has been increasing even more rapidly. The California Avocado Commission (CAC), an industry-run agency for promoting and compiling information on avocados, has run successful marketing campaigns in the Midwest, on the East Coast, even in Japan and Europe. The result: growers have been able to sell avocados at a premium, even during years of record production. (The CAC, until recently known as the California Avocado Advisory Board, was created by an act of the state legislature in 1961. Its main function is advertising and promoting avocados, but it also keeps certain statistical information for government use, and it sponsors a limited amount of research into growing-related problems. Supported by assessments to growers on the gross weight of avocados shipped each year, its current budget is around $5 million.)
The CAC’s slick promotional campaign belies the earthy, down-home image usually associated with agricultural production. Through several large advertising agencies, the CAC has promoted avocados in nationally distributed newspapers and magazines. It has purchased radio spots for restaurants in exchange for agreements to feature avocados on menus. It has arranged packing house tours for food editors from magazines like McCalls, Better Homes & Gardens. and Redbook. It has even sponsored films on how avocados grow for use in elementary school classrooms.
In perspective, the industry's promotional strategy works something like this: inform and educate the public about avocados—get them interested and buying. Then convince retail produce outlets of the huge potential market available. Phase two of this strategy is often carried out with the help of ads in trade publications like Chain Store Age and The Packer. “Each Hinky Dinky store in Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota now sells more California avocados than the entire chain did just ten years ago. Avocados are one of our regular top profit producers, “ claims a produce operations director in a CAC trade ad from 1977.
Inducing the public to buy avocados can be more complex. CAC studies have shown that persons over the age of fifty-five with incomes upwards of $15,000 a year buy fifty-two percent of the avocados sold in America. While catering to this segment (which the industry recognizes as its mainstay), the CAC has increasingly tried to reach what it feels is the greatest potential buying group: consumers in the twenty-five to fifty-five age group. Some of the gimmicks used to attract these buyers are standard media fare: brightly colored ads. recipe handouts and the like. Others are more bizarre. In 1977 the readership of Cosmopolitan was offered avocado print bikinis for just $10.95. if each order was accompanied by a sliver of avocado skin. Other ads promoted the use of avocado seeds for jewelry and ornaments, and mashed avocado as a natural cosmetic.
Apparently most of these approaches have been successful, because the public has clamored for avocados in such great numbers that the growers haven’t been able to keep up. In fact, recently the industry has been hard put to supply new buyers who a few years ago were assured of the constant availability of avocados. Without enough fruit to go around, the industry has set itself the less ambitious task of producing a steady, even supply of avocados year-round. This at least enables retail markets to keep prices relatively stable, and is accomplished primarily by grow ing two varieties which produce in successive seasons: the dark, bumpy Hass in the late spring and summer, and the emerald-green Fuerte in the winter and early spring. (A third variety, the shiny green Zutano, is often found in supermarkets during the gap between Hass and Fuerte seasons, in the fall; but the Zutano avocado has a relatively poor taste, and growers are not able to get premium prices for it.)
In spite of these efforts, though, the supply of avocados from month to month still varies considerably. And since the amount of fruit available is a primary factor in determining its value, the wholesale price of avocados at any one time is at best a guessing game; at worst, it’s every supplier for himself. The going wholesale rate for, say, eight-ounce Fuertes can vary from twenty-nine to thirty-three cents per pound in a matter of hours, depending on the latest estimates of available fruit. More and more, buyers and sellers alike are coming to depend on large suppliers for accurate estimates, and there is no one able to get more accurate information than Calavo, the huge nonprofit co-op that includes one-third of all growers in California.
Calavo was formed in 1924 as a grower-owned distribution and marketing entity. From the start its goal was to maximize profits to the grower, and its founders recognized that to do this, it would be necessary to organize some sort of promotional campaign. It was largely as a result of Calavo’s efforts that the popularity of avocados increased steadily for the next two decades. Eventually they became so lucrative a crop that, in the after-math of World War II, thousands of new acres were planted all over California. When these trees came to full maturity in the mid-Fifties, it was found that there were far more avocados around than anyone could sell. Prices dropped to as little as five cents per pound. Faced with enormous losses, independent packing houses accused Calavo of being a communistic monopoly deliberately underpricing its fruit. Calavo responded by claiming that it was the independents who were keeping prices down, often adding, in effect, that , these independents were capitalists of the worst sort. In the North County, each side took out ads in newspapers like the Fallbrook Enterprise and the Escondido Times /Advocate, accusing the other of cheating and lying. In one instance, cards which appeared to be from Calavo’s main office were sent to Calavo members by an independent packer, encouraging them to withdraw from the co-op. The strife continued for several years until the CAC was created to open up new markets for avocados. By the mid-Sixties the CAC’s effort had paid off spectacularly, and avocado prices rose to new highs.
With business booming for the last twelve years, the dispute between Calavo and independents has cooled. The charges of “communist" or “capitalist" carry little weight these days, since both sides conduct business in a virtually identical manner (the principal difference is that independent packing houses pay cash for fruit, while Calavo growers contribute their fruit to a ‘ ‘pool ’’ and are paid within a month according to the average selling price). Both sides now cautiously express a need for the other’s existence. One manager of an independent company in Fallbrook recently put it this way: “If Calavo didn’t exist, then maybe the growers would get ripped off. But if the independents didn't exist, the public might get ripped off.”
In Escondido Calavo is represented by a huge, dull yellow building extending several hundred yards along the railroad tracks just west of dovyntown. The main portion of the building is used for storing and packing avocados; up to 250,000 pounds can be packed in a single day. Through centers like this one Calavo currently controls about fifty percent of the avocados going to market in the U.S. This gives them an enormous influence: the co-op could conceivably, through its network of distribution centers, flood the market with avocados, thereby driving prices down. Far more likely is the possibility of them slowing the flow of avocados to the market, in order to keep prices up. It is a fact that Calavo growers over the last five years have received, on the average, higher prices for their fruit than non-Calavo growers. Generally Calavo claims that this is due to their nonprofit policy and the reduced costs of high volume packing and shipping. But one member of the co-op’s management conceded recently that the huge share of the market they control enables them, at times, to ask for and get more for their avocados.
Ask an avocado grower what his biggest expenses are, and he will likely tell you land, water, and labor. Since 1974 the cost of water in the Fallbrook Public Utilities District (one of the less expensive water districts in the North County) has risen nearly twenty-five percent, and until last winter the drought threatened to drive prices even higher. Currently in Fallbrook it costs about two to three hundred dollars per acre to irrigate an avocado grove for a year But nearly all of the North County’s water comes from the Colorado River, and the electricity needed to pump it many miles from its source comprises the bulk of the cost. When the Metropolitan Water District’s contract with the power companies expires in 1982, the price of electricity—and therefore the price of the North County’s water—is expected to increase greatly.
Meanwhile, the offices, stores and housing tracts popping up all over the area are causing North County property costs to soar. Three- to five-acre groves are commonly going for as much as $30,000 an acre, and many parcels for more. (Outside Fallbrook, one of the choicest areas, three-acre groves can go as high as $48,000 an acre.) Since it is estimated that, even at only $15,000 an acre, it takes six years for a new grove to reach the break-even point, it would appear that some people these days are entering the business of growing avocados more as a tax shelter than anything else. To individuals or corporations in the high-income bracket, investing in an avocado grove which loses money can be an attractive alternative to paying taxes.
The construction boom, along with increasing plantings, is having another effect on avocado groves—namely, that the total amount of land suitable for growing the fruit is diminishing. One industry study estimates that eighty-two percent of this land nationwide is already planted with avocados. The land pinch is made clear in San Diego’s North County by the number of new groves appearing on steep hillsides (examples can be seen from Highway 15 just north of Escondido). These are costly and hardly ideal locations for the trees to grow.
The cost of labor hasn’t risen nearly as dramatically as water or land, but it is a far more complex problem. As many as half the workers are Mexicans who have entered the United States illegally (the Immigration and Naturalization Service recently changed its official term for these workers from “illegal aliens” to “undocumented aliens,” according to the preference of its director, Leonel Castillo).
Richard Johnson, a cheerful, blondhaired man in his mid-twenties, has worked extensively with undocumented Mexican workers. For years he was in charge of labor for the W.L. Johnson Corporation of Bonsall, a grove management firm run by his father. When the corporation was acquired by West-Ag Farms, also of Bonsall, in 1976, Richard Johnson formed his own company for grove development. Something of a maverick in the industry, Johnson has made lasting friendships among his workers, and has even shared his house with them. Most undocumented workers, he says, are fortunate to live in shabbily built bunkhouses, and many live in trees or in the gullies between groves, in “communities” that can reach populations of one hundred or more.
“You’ll find wets doing mostly manual labor—picking, planting, tending trees,” Johnson observes. “You’ll find a lot of them at nurseries, too, places that can afford to lose people if they get arrested and sent back to Mexico.” Avocado packing houses rarely employ undocumented workers, according to Johnson, because the work there comes in streaks and the owners can’t afford to have machines go unmanned due to mass deportations.
Johnson agrees that the Mexicans provide a labor force for jobs most Americans aren’t interested in doing. “There’s about that many Americans,” he says, holding his thumb and forefinger a fraction of an inch apart, “who have ever gone out and done a day’s work like those wetbacks do. Most of the Americans I’ve worked with in the groves avoid responsibilities, take time off; they have a whole different attitude. If you try to maintain a work force like that, it drives your prices higher.
“But the wetbacks don’t seem to mind the work. They make what amounts to a fortune for them, and they really appreciate it.” Most undocumented workers now make at least the minimum wage of $2.90 an hour, perhaps because employers are wary of showing anything less for tax purposes. In some cases undocumented workers with experience can make over four dollars an hour. According to Johnson, wages are up partly because more of the workers are experienced. “A few years ago if you needed, say, to spray some herbicide, you’d just tell someone to get out there and do it. Now things are more organized. Now it’s Armando who runs the spray crew, and he knows what he’s doing, so he gets paid more.”
Not all the undocumented workers are making good wages, though. Some are employed by “labor contractors”— middlemen who contract with workers and growers on a job-by-job basis. “Labor contractors can be pretty shady characters,” Johnson says. “They call me up sometimes and ask where they can get a wetback. I’m pretty suspicious of those guys. They pay low wages, and they pay only for the time the guy is actually working—picking or whatever. ” Why are the workers willing to work for contractors such as this? “Fear of the unknown, ’ ’ says Johnson. “Chances are they’re with a large group of wets like themselves, and I suppose they get some security from that. They figure that working for this guy they’re at least making some money, and who knows if things will be better somewhere else?”
There are conflicting opinions of what effect the Immigration and Naturalization Service is having on the overall labor situation. Some say the laborers, both legal and illegal, are as plentiful as ever. Others, including Alan Myers, editor of Avocado Grower magazine in Vista, claim that increased patrols and arrests by the INS are making the market for labor tighter. Myers says that the shortage of workers is driving wages upward in some areas. But the INS, represented in this area of the North County by the Temecula Border Patrol Station, located a few miles north of Escondido on Interstate 15, says they devote only one day a week to actual “raids.”
“Our primary concern is the highway — stopping illegals from getting further north,” asserts Tom Bowman, an agent at the Temecula station. “We just don’t have the time to devote more than one day in seven to what we call ‘ranch check.’ Given the size of the problem, we can’t possibly stop it entirely. It’s a matter of trying to do what we can.”
According to Bowman, in the first ten months of 1978 the Temecula station made 907 arrests of undocumented aliens. This figure—which includes all aliens, whether caught on the highway, in avocado groves, or in other agricultural areas—barely hints at the thousands of undocumented aliens actually at work in the North County. But only repeat offenders are likely to be prosecuted, and even among these the prosecution rate is low. Bowman, with a hint of admiration in his voice, notes that some of the workers arrested admit to having been caught before. Other times, he says, officers “actually recognize some individuals, and come to me and say, ‘Well hell, he was here just last week.' ” Richard Johnson confirms the ease with which deported workers re-enter the U.S., claiming that he knows Mexicans who have been returned to Mexico and who have then reappeared in the North County a few days later, three or four times in succession.
Since growers themselves must be proved to have knowingly employed illegal aliens in order to be prosecuted, they are effectively insulated, at least legally, from the controversy. And while they literally depend on their workers to stay in business, for the most part they have not pressed for changes in immigration law that would benefit the illegal laborers. One grower summed up this passive attitude by saying, “It’s a sensitive area, and we don’t like to talk about it much. Officially, we don’t regard it as our primary responsibility to determine the legal status of our workers. But aside from that line, there are a hell of a lot of illegal aliens working out there. ”
One of the more intriguing characteristics of avocado trees is that they tend to bear heavily only in alternate years. This phenomenon is typical of most fruit trees, but has never been fully understood. San Diego County Farm Advisor Don Gustafson, who has been called the most knowledgeable man in the world on avocados, once observed that it appears that the trees are “resting” every other year. Alternate bearing is particularly pronounced in the Fuerte variety, and for this reason North County growers are increasingly planting the Hass. The Hass is a relatively consistent bearer, and in addition, can produce up to twice as much fruit as the Fuerte. Its black, pebbly skin is thicker than that of the Fuerte, making it less susceptible to bruising and damage during shipment. Currently at least two-thirds of the new plantings throughout the North County are Hass.
Whatever its cause, alternate bearing has a marked effect on the availability of avocados. In California, odd-numbered years traditionally bring the highest yields and therefore the lowest prices, and 1979 should be no exception. (The damage to crops from last month’s frost, however, may change the situation. San Diego County growers may have suffered as much as $11 million in losses.) Another factor that might lower avocado prices in the near future is the huge number of new plantings. Although steadily increasing plantings over the last fifteen years have brought no decrease in prices, in the last few years the number of new plantings has skyrocketed like it has only once before in the history of the industry—the early Fifties. It is estimated that by the early 1980s, when these new trees become fully mature, the state’s total crop could reach as much as 500 million pounds (last year’s crop, a record high, was only 240 million pounds).
On the other hand, once production reaches a maximum, the cost of avocados could spiral upward almost indefinitely, particularly if the CAC's promotional efforts continue to be successful in increasing demand. Already the price of California avocados hovers near a dollar apiece on the East Coast, and in Japan they bring as much as $1.50 each.
The CAC’s promotional campaign is probably the single most potent factor leading to high prices for avocados, and in a sense, it has led to an inflated market for the fruit. The CAC has not simply sought to stimulate demand; they have done their best to keep demand far ahead of available supplies or even future production. The result, of course, is continued high cost to the consumer.
Richard Johnson recently demonstrated the perspective the industry could have on the high cost of the fruit when he was asked what he would be willing to pay for an avocado. He admitted that although he eats avocados constantly, he couldn’t remember the last time he bought one. “It’s funny you mention it, though,” he grinned. “I nearly bought one just the other day. I was down at the store, and I saw the avocados and thought, ‘Well, I guess I should get one of these.’ I picked one up and put it in my basket. But my partner was with me, and he started laughing so hard I put it back on the shelf.”
The current price of avocados might also make the typical shopper laugh, but it will be a short, humorless laugh, and back of it will be the suspicion that no matter what happens to the avocado crop, consumers will be the losers.