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How California Has Become the Nation's Leading Producer of Avocados

It sounds like a punchline for Brooklyn hipsterdom, but in fact, this is no joke: in a move that we probably should’ve anticipated all along, an avocado restaurant recently opened in a 40,000 square foot food hall. This news comes along with an announcement from the Starbucks Coffee Corporation that they too are in the business of serving avocado toast. Americans — and Californios in particular — have enjoyed guacamole for many decades now. What began as a charming and humble trend at farm-to-table restaurants has clearly awakened the inexplicable gratification of a fruit that’s been a staple crop in the Americas for thousands of years. 

Like maize, or corn, the origin of the avocado can be attributed in part to human being and in part to nature. The avocados we eat today are nothing like those of our ancestors. In 1982, evolutionary biologist Daniel H. Janzen concluded that the avocado was able to adapt because of its ecological coevolution with 200-pound Caribbean ground sloths and anteaters from the Ice Age. These enormous creatures were critical in the seed dispersal, consuming the fruit in its entirety, then depositing the waste somewhere further along than where it originated. Many animals, both mammal and aquatic, are known to be highly — and sometimes fatally — allergic to the fruit's toxic fatty acid derivative, persin. The sheer size of the Caribbean ground sloth (and its dung), however, allowed it to effectively disperse avocado seeds. 

Avocado Toast
Toasted avocado bread topped with hummus and California avocado | California Avocados/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Aztecs, the Nahuatl indigenous people of central Mexico, called the fruit aoacatl, which transliterated for modern language is ahuácatl, which on the subject of language and translations means testicle. The aesthetic and texture of the fruit and its propensity to grow in couplets on the tree probably needs no further explanation regarding the adaptation of the name. In 1519, Spanish conquistador Martín Fernández de Enciso is the first to mention the fruit in his book, "Suma de Geografia", debauching the name to aguacate. 

In 1833, horticulturist Henry Perrine imported the first avocado trees in Florida, but the fate of that venture is not certain. In the middle of the 20th century, in Azusa, California, the Visiting Committee of the California State Agricultural Society noted the first successful plantings came from trees in Nicaragua. California has endured as an oasis for the fruit, producing roughly 90 percent of the nation’s avocados and 100 percent of the most delicious ones. And Mexico, the homeland, leads global exports. This is very typical that a center of origin would represent the most diversity and vigor, so for Mexico, this should come as no surprise. Though there are hundreds of varieties, the most common in the United States is the Hass, named after Rudolph Hass, a postal employee who purchased the seedling from a California farmer in 1926. With its high richness, nuttiness and relatively easy cultivation, it quickly became the most ubiquitous variety for both producer and consumer, and it is almost certainly what is being served in the Starbucks and at the new avocado restaurant. 

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In Ventura, California, where avocados have grown splendidly since 1871, second generation grower Will Brokaw, along with the help of his mother, the CEO and the foreman Jose, manages the sale of 250 acres of premium avocados, which grow in a canyon with steep hillsides and varying subtropical temperatures. While geographically close to the avocados that will likely end up on the Starbucks bagel, their operation is unique in that most of the Brokaw’s best clients are fine dining restaurants in the Bay Area. Will, who owns and operates a depot in Watsonville, the midpoint between the ranch and the Bay, jokes that he makes Jose’s life more complicated than the typical grower. Unlike most commercial farms, Brokaw’s discerning restaurant and market customers want their avocados to be as ripe as possible upon purchasing. Whereas most large farms harvest at once and leave the rest of the details to a co-packing/distribution partner, the Brokaws, who grow more more than a half-dozen varieties, like Bacon, Reed and Gwen, custom pack most of their cases for clients, introducing complicated variables in the logistics of a fruit that ripens as soon as it’s picked from the tree. 

The family nursery in Saticoy (also in Ventura) is currently the state’s largest avocado tree producer, having sold more than 10 million domestically and internationally. The nursery is also a leader in citrus, kiwi and other subtropical fruit trees. Overlooking a recently replanted section of the farm, Brokaw marvels at the vast region, amazed by the rich history of a simple fruit that has sustained the prosperity of his family and the state of California.

California Avocado Farmers
Agricultural Extension "Avocado Growers Field Day" demonstration, 1939 | Orange County Archives/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Sources:
University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources 
Harvard Papers in Botany
Smithsonian - Why the Avocado Should’ve Gone the Way of the Dodo

Preview image: Dale Cruse/Flickr/Creative Commons License
Top image: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr/Creative Commons License

 

 

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