A California avocado farmer’s perspective on the practices and rewards of avocado cultivation
By Thomas Smith
Gentle sun, calm coastal breezes, and consistently mild temperatures make southern California the ideal place to live for avocado trees and humans alike. It is also the birthplace of the Hass avocado, a delicious green fruit packed with nutrients and creamy goodness.
“We have a very beautiful, benign climate here. Never really too hot, or never really too cold,” said Rick Shade, an avocado farm manager from coastal Santa Barbara county, Calif. He added that avocados cannot tolerate freezing temperatures or temperatures above 100 degrees, which means they must be grown in specific conditions, even within California.
In fact, the picturesque climate needed for avocado farming makes up only about 1 percent of California land, and the average grove size is only about 13 acres. However, nearly 4,000 Californian avocado growers produce around 90 percent of the U.S. avocado crop each year. According to the Hass Avocado Board, Americans consume around 2.2 billion pounds of avocado per year – that’s about 5 billion avocados – and consumption is on the rise. Shade estimates that each commercial farm produces at least 10,000 pounds per acre of avocados yearly.
As a farm manager, Shade is responsible for tending avocado farms for families who can no longer do so themselves. Shade’s company, Shade Farm Management, farms about 700 acres of avocado trees. The fifth-generation farmer said some of the farms he manages have been in the owners’ families since the mid-1800s. “To be really honest, most of the people I run for feel like family,” Shade added.
The avocado tree itself is also long-lived, and Shade assumes that many of the trees he farms today were planted in the time of his grandfather. Since then, farming technologies have advanced considerably, but the industrious farming spirit has remained the same. “Probably the best use of technology has been the engineering of the irrigation systems and the sprinklers themselves,” Shade said. “We are much more efficient with what we’re doing there, and much more precise in our application of water.” The use of moisture detectors in the soil also help to conserve water.
Another positive environmental fact about avocados is that they mature while on the tree but do not fully ripen until picked. This means avocados are never frozen, which is both good for the environment and good for flavor. “As a grower, sustainability is really foremost on my mind,” Shade said. Fortunately, avocados are a relatively low-input crop, which means they are naturally environmentally friendly.
Nature has its own role to play in protecting avocado crops. “We let mother nature take her course,” the farmer said. “Squirrels love to eat avocados, but hawks and owls like to eat squirrels, so we balance it out that way.”
The dense shade produced by a full-grown avocado tree acts as a natural deterrent to weed growth, he said. Additionally, because avocados are picked by hand, tractors are never used in avocado farming, which is especially good for the environment.
Shade said his harvest occurs in the late summer and early fall, which he describes as, “the absolute peak of avocado goodness.”
A heavy skin ranging in color from dark green to black is a tell-tale sign of a ripe avocado. The fruit should be soft and easy to cut, which will reveal a lime green rim around a rich, pale center that can only be described as avocado green.
As far as flavor goes, Shade describes the mouthwatering fruit as having a delicious creamy, nutty taste, with “almost a hint of bacon in the way it hits my palate.” He admits the Hass avocado has a distinctive taste which is hard to describe. Whether you can taste the bacon or not, avocados are loaded with heart-healthy monosaturated fats, a type of fat rarely found in fruits.
Avocados are part of a heart-healthy diet, Shade explained, and are naturally rich in vitamin K, fiber, lutein, and a multitude of other vitamins and nutrients. The green wonder is not only nutrient dense, but also completely free of sodium and cholesterol, which makes it a healthy addition to any dish.
The greatest joy of farming for Rick Shade is getting his hands dirty outside, in the agreeable weather of an avocado farm. “I cannot complain about the life I have, it’s a good life. It’s been a good life for me and the people before me, and my one son that stayed in the business seems to enjoy it quite a bit too.”