Kiss Your Guacamole Good-Bye: Drought-Stricken California Farmers Stop Growing Avocados

But new techniques may help growers squeeze more fruit from fewer acres with less water.

(Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Nov 3, 2014
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

When Chipotle warned investors back in March that it might suspend serving guacamole at its restaurants if avocado prices rose because of the California drought, climate change hit home for chip-and-dip lovers, who took to Twitter in distress.

Things have not gotten better since then.

It takes 74 gallons of water to produce one pound of avocados—and drought-stricken California produces 95 percent of the avocados grown in the United States. No wonder Chipotle’s bean counters are worried.

One-third of the state’s avocados are grown in San Diego County, which has some of the highest water prices in the state. In Valley Center, a town that is home to many family farms, avocado growers have seen water rates rise steeply in recent years—so much so that irrigating their groves has become more expensive than the price they get for selling their avocados.

Water isn’t the only challenge. University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser Gary Bender points out that avocado growers have been hit by a triple whammy: rising fertilizer costs, spikes in water rates, and stagnant wholesale prices owing to competition from cheap imports from Peru, Chile, and Mexico.

This has forced many small farmers to shut off the water and let their groves go dry.

Growers often don’t report their fallow acreage, and the San Diego County Farm Bureau and the California Avocado Commission can’t say how many avocado farms have gone out of production. But by conservative estimates, a couple thousand acres have gone fallow just in Valley Center.

“If you drive around here, I could show you thousands of acres of abandoned avocado groves,” said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

Valley Center pays some of California’s highest water rates because of its elevation, which means water must be pumped up to the town.

A handful of farmers have tried switching to wine grapes, but most farms are on rocky hillsides not conducive to growing crops other than avocados.

“The bottom line is growers have to find ways to increase production on the same land and produce more fruit per acre,” Larson explained.

That’s where farm advisers like Gary Bender come into the picture. Now retired, the veteran horticulturist is an expert on all things avocado and is sought out by growers desperate to increase crop yields while reducing water use.

Bender has been working with several farmers to experiment with high-density planting that spaces trees nearer to each other and prunes them so they grow up rather than out, as branches that receive more sunlight bear more fruit. Packing more trees on less land also reduces water costs.

Growers who have run trials found that they could increase their yields substantially—double or triple the industry average of 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of fruit per acre.

Farmer Steve Howerzyl grows avocados at two locations in Escondido, a few miles from Valley Center. One 14-acre farm relies on municipal water, which costs about $1,100 per acre-foot of water, compared with the $1,500 per acre-foot that Valley Center farmers pay. On the other farm, he only has access to scarce groundwater, so he has had to cut down trees and he farms only three of 20 acres.

“The only way you can compete with cheaper imports and the high cost of water is if you go high-density and get more production per acre," Howerzyl said.

There are few other options for staying in business as water prices rise.

“If we can’t get more [for avocados] than our water costs, we will be done in Valley Center, where groundwater is drying up,” Bender said.

In the long term, Larson expects total acreage to fall, but that won’t spell doom for avocado growers or guacamole lovers.

“San Diego County may produce more avocados than it does today,” he said, “but on fewer acres, as the growers who do understand the business develop techniques to produce more fruit per acre.”

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