Super Bowl Viewers will consume about 26 million avocados on game day

Santa Paula, Ventura County -- Call it serendipity, but California's avocado harvest is spiking on the eve of the event that most inspires couch potatoes and tailgaters to reach for the guacamole: the Super Bowl. According to the understandably boosteristic calculations of the California Avocado Commission, Americans will gobble up 13.2 million pounds of guacamole between the pregame warm-up and the final gun. That's 26 million avocados, a level of consumption that puts the once- suspect "alligator pears" in the chips 'n' dips big league, along with beans, salsa, sour cream and cheese.

It took the better part of half a century for the California avocado industry to win a secure niche on the nation's dinner tables for the tough- skinned green fruit with its rich, buttery tasting flesh. But avocados now rank 18th among the state's leading crops -- right behind chickens -- with on- farm sales in excess of $300 million per year. America's avocado appetite has grown to the point where the harvest from California's 58,600 acres of groves is insufficient, and avocado pulp is being imported from Mexico to close a guacamole gap.

Production central for prepackaged commercial guacamole is the town of Santa Paula (Ventura County), where a Calavo Growers of California plant, built in 1975, churns out 15 million to 20 million pounds per year, in 35 flavors, assorted textures and labels, and more than 100 different packages. That's about 40 percent of the world's commercially produced guacamole. "We've grown the market," said George Hatfield, vice president of grower- owned Calavo, who is in charge of the company's international guacamole operation, which includes production facilities in Uruapan and Mexicali, Mexico. "We export to Japan, Europe, Canada. . . . We sent guacamole to Dubai (to feed) the troops during Desert Storm," he said. It is a measure of the growing fresh-market demand for avocados that "hardly any California avocados are used in (commercial) guacamole," said John Hunt, manager of The Ranch at Bacara, where 300 acres of avocados are grown in the hills and canyons of Tecolote Creek north of Santa Barbara. Even cosmetically inferior No. 2 avocados are sold fresh to restaurants that make their own guacamole, he said. Calavo, with about 35 percent of the avocado market, represents 1,600 of the state's 5,500 growers, whose groves average 20 acres.


Avocados were introduced to California from Mexico in 1913, but the fruit was still a mystery to most Californians as late as 1926. "People tried to make hair oil out of them," the late Henry Willis, a prominent Salinas Valley produce executive, liked to recall. Avocados were an exotic gourmet item, not unlike truffles, when Willis took his first job after graduating from Stanford University, delivering trays of them to the Mark Hopkins, the Palace and other fine San Francisco hotels. "We got $1 for each piece of fruit," he said.

The avocado is temperature-sensitive and does poorly in extreme heat or cold. In California, which produces 85 percent of the nation's crop, avocados are grown from the Mexico border to the mid-Salinas Valley and as far inland as San Bernardino. Most of the crop is in four counties: San Diego (26,500 acres), Ventura (15,500 acres), Santa Barbara (8,800 acres) and Riverside (7, 100 acres.) Despite state-of-the-art packaging and marketing, avocados remain a labor- intensive crop. They are harvested by hand, and in Calavo's Mexicali plant, the fruit is hand-peeled and pitted . But avocados are hardy, and can take rough handling. "The fruit can hold on the trees for a long time (and) it doesn't start ripening until it's picked," Hunt said.


The millions of avocados that become guacamole are harvested and sorted by Calavo crews in and around Uruapan in the Mexican state of Michoacan. The fruit is trucked north to the company's Mexicali plant, where it is peeled and its pulp packed in vacuum-sealed, refrigerated 2,000-pound containers -- with a "lid" of nitrogen to prevent it from turning brown -- for overnight shipment to Santa Paula. Lab technicians check the guacamole every 15 minutes to test its PH, salt content, seal integrity and color. Quick-frozen, the finished product is shipped year-round. And it's kosher. A rabbi inspects Calavo's Mexicali and Santa Paula plants every month.


The avocado is a hardy tree that can be productive for 50 years. But it grows bushy, and an unpruned orchard can become almost impenetrably junglelike and is susceptible to an indigenous soil disease -- avocado root rot -- that can be fatal. California grows seven varieties of avocado commercially, and the pebbly- skinned, rich-tasting Hass variety, which accounts for about 90 percent of the crop, is harvested every month of the year. The harvest peaks in January and February, when Chilean production tapers off. In recent years, growers' maintenance problems have been exacerbated by two insect pests, Persea mites and scirtothrips, which attack the trees' leaves, reduce productivity and must be controlled by pesticides. Consequently, just 14 of Calavo's 1,600 growers ship organic fruit.

None of the guacamole is certified as organic. "We'd have to charge $10 a pound for it," Hatfield said. Like most other California crops, avocados face international competition, principally from Mexico and Chile, which exported nearly 200 million pounds to the United States last year. Nevertheless, the domestic avocado industry keeps growing. "It's challenging, but it's been a good year so far, and we're making good money," said Jerome Stehle, president of the California Avocado Commission, who farms 200 acres of avocados in San Diego County and manages an additional 1,200 acres. California's avocado acreage has actually declined from an all-time high of 76,307 in 1987-88, because of urbanization, root rot and marginal groves that were bulldozed before coming into full production, but volume is up. The 2000- 2001 crop of 422 million pounds was the biggest since 1992-93. And the industry figures it still has room to grow. Major replanting is under way in the coastal areas of San Luis Obispo County.

"What's happened is that a lot of part-time farmers washed out, and the rest of us just became better farmers," Stehle said. Besides, he said, "we've had good advertising. The word has gotten out that besides having an irresistible taste, avocados are healthful for you."