The year was 1914, and two fruit growers went to Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles to buy one of the new fruits they’d been hearing so much about. They were expensive at $1 each, and they had an unusual name: the Alligator Pear.
Undaunted, the growers sliced open the pebbly green fruit and carved out a slice each. But the fruit wasn’t yet ripe, and its taste was unappealing. The men weren’t impressed. They thought they had wasted their money and they moved on.
“It was 20 years before my grandfather looked at one again,” says Rick Shade, a third-generation avocado grower. He gestures across his grove, part of 200 acres he oversees in Carpinteria, the city that hosts an annual Avocado Festival in October.
“And now we can’t keep up with the demand. The world wants avocados.”
The rise of the avocado throughout the United States in recent times is due to several things, most notably the loosening of the ban on imports from Mexico (the world’s largest producer), which meant that avocados were readily available to all Americans. There’s also the growing Hispanic population, who brought with them a traditional love of guacamole.
In California, the largest consumer in the U.S., avocados grow literally in our own backyards. Known for the slowly-ripening Hass, a variety that’s ideal because of both shipping durability and shelf-life, avocados are offered in the produce sections around the country for many months of the year. Aided by strong marketing plans, the avocado has now become a mainstream fruit that has been added to nearly everything; and is often considered a special side order in restaurants for which many are willing to pay extra.
California Adopts the Avocado
There are hundreds of varieties of avocado, but the Hass is by far the most popular. Pronounced “Hass” not “Haas,” it has a special relationship with California, which grows over 90% of avocados grown in the U.S., most recently around 350 million pounds a year.
Avocados originated in South-Central Mexico sometime between 7,000 and 5,000 B.C., but it was much later that wild varieties were cultivated, and it wasn’t until 1696 that the first English-language mention of the word “avocado” came to surface.
Judge R.B. Ord bought avocado trees from Mexico to his home in Santa Barbara in 1871, and by the 1950s around 25 different varieties were being packed and shipped in California. In the late 1920s Rudolph Hass, a mailman, purchased a seed from grower A. R. Rideout, and planted it in his grove in La Habra Heights.
Hass’s children loved the taste of his new fruit, while it also took off with chefs catering to the wealthy in the region. Hass took out a patent in 1935, and the fruit grew in popularity so much that by the 1970s it had taken over from the thin-skinned Fuerte, which didn’t ship as well as the thicker-skinned Hass.
Hass’s legacy lived on long after his death. The original avocado “mother tree” in La Habra Heights died of root rot in 2002 aged 76, and today all the Hass avocados in the world can trace their roots back to it.
The Road to Avocado Highway
Avocados can grow year-round in California, with the majority of the harvest happening in the spring and summer. Like all California farmers, avocado growers have to contend with California’s weather anomalies like heat, drought, fire and floods.
“All avocado growers are amateur meteorologists,” laughs Shade. “Avocados are generally very hardy, but if the temperature reaches 115 degrees, something humans can’t take, then the avocado trees can’t [take it] either. The fruit just cooks.”
California famously has a complicated relationship with water, and irrigation is vital for avocado groves too. “Mother Nature kindly provides about a third to half,” says Shade, “and we add about the same water as you would for a lawn. In Carpinteria, we water about every two to three weeks.” Avocados use about half as much water per cup produced as another one of California’s popular crops, the almond.
San Diego County is one of the main growing regions in California. Driving along “Avocado Highway,” a 22-mile stretch on Interstate 15 between Escondido and Temecula, you see groves lined vertically on the mountainsides. That nickname is now official: The name Avocado Highway was adopted by a California Senate Resolution in 1997.
On visiting a grove up in the hills off of Avocado Highway, it takes a moment to see the avocados. They grow under thick, bushy leaves, but when you pull the leaves back there’s a bounty — a single California tree produces an average of 150 avocados a year, and sometimes up to 500.
They don’t ripen on the tree. It’s only when they’re snipped loose by a picker on a tall ladder using hand secateurs, or from the ground using a long pole with a snipping blade at the end, that the ripening begins.
In the control room of a packing plant in Murrieta, huge monitors show multiple snapshots of every single avocado. Analyzed at mind-boggling speed for weight, size, skin color and imperfections, a series of spools separates and stickers the avocados by California grade, and then carries each one along the production line to be boxed.
There are several grades. “Export” is for the Asian market, which prefers picture-perfect avocados with no blemishes. There’s “U.S. No. 1,” which is what you’ll see in grocery stores and some restaurants, and “U.S. No. 2,” which is mainly for restaurants and places where the outside appearance is not as important — as long as the inside tastes great.
All the avocados are checked several times by hand, but about 1% of the crop will be “culls” – damaged by sunburn, blemishes or other damage. Some of these go to the landfill, but others go to green waste recycling and composting facilities, or too small, boutique producers of avocado oil. On rare occasions, they go to pork producers as feedstock. The fruit is designated by size and ripening stage (1 for a light green “hard” and 5 for deep green “ripe”) before additional “conditioning” at the packing plant’s warehouses that can hasten the process. A rule of thumb is that if a very gentle squeeze makes it give a little, it’s ready to eat.
Beyond the Table
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a proclamation declaring the avocado the state fruit in 2013, and the avocado has soared beyond being a topping for toast. It’s a chef’s favorite for a variety of dishes, even featured in smoothies and ice cream. The fact that it’s low in cholesterol and sodium and contains vitamins, potassium, fiber, antioxidants and heart-healthy fatty-acids makes it a healthy choice too.
The term “guac” has just been added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and avocado toast is surely here to stay. Barring unforeseen weather calamities, demand is sure to keep rising in California and beyond.
The avocado has taken on a life outside of the kitchen, too. It’s become an Instagram favorite for proposals and gender reveals, cleverly embedding a diamond ring or something blue or pink in the space where the stone (or seed) once was.
The growth of the avocado as a staple crop in California has had a rich history, and its future seems unlimited. Not bad for something that started out as the Alligator Pear.
Top Image credit: Yamile Florez from Pexels (Creative Commons)