Here’s how avocados get from the tree to the table

By Liz Barrett Foster

We know many of you want to know more about where your favorite ingredients come from, how they’re grown or produced and how they get to your kitchens — because your customers want to know too.   

Enter: the ever-popular avocado. 

One of Mother Nature’s most finicky fruits, avocados have earned a reputation for being high maintenance. They require rich rocky soil, perfect temperatures, lots of moisture (but not too much moisture) and hands-on care from Day One. An avocado tree’s bark, leaves and fruit are highly desirable to hungry gophers, deer and even insects that travel hundreds of miles to dine on them.

So, what’s the payoff for avocado growers? “Have you tasted a California avocado?” asks Rachael Laenen, assistant ranch manager and third-generation avocado grower at Kimball Ranches – El Hogar in Santa Paula, California. 

Originating in Mexico and Central America, where the subtropical climate is ideal for high-maintenance fruit, avocados were introduced to California in 1871 by Judge R.B. Ord. Since then, more than two dozen varieties of avocados have been grown in America, with the pebbly skinned Hass becoming the most popular of the seven varieties still grown commercially in California.

Although most avocados eaten in the U.S. are imported, the majority grown in the U.S. come from California, where they are produced year-round. The state now grows 90% of the country’s avocados, despite only using 1% of California’s coastline and select inland areas to do so. According to the California Avocado Commission, an average California avocado tree will yield 60 pounds, or 150 pieces of fruit per year, but in peak maturity can produce 200 pounds, or 500 pieces of fruit.

Hass avocados are the most commercially available, according to Laenen, which is why 99% of the avocado trees at Kimball are Hass. “Hass are reliable, ripen consistently, are easy for us to transport, and when you cut into one, you know what you’re getting,” she says.

Planting

Farmers get avocado trees from a nursery after they’ve already been grafted onto rootstock and grown into seedlings for a year or two. At this point, the trees are ready to plant, which can be an intense process, according to Laenen. “As soon as you expose the tree’s roots to the air, they die,” she says. “So, we put the root ball in the hole, pack it with dirt, and water it in with five gallons of water to fill in any air gaps.” It will take two years before the newly planted tree starts to bear any fruit and up to 15 years before the tree reaches full avocado production. In the meantime, since California rain is scarce, avocado trees are watered using groundwater. “We draw the water up for the avocados and then it drains right back to the aquifers,” Laenen says. 

Harvesting

In central California, the typical harvest time for avocados runs anytime between April and October. 

“We go around our ranch three times per year, and we’re always picking for 48s, which is a specific size of fruit between 7.5 ounces and 9.5 ounces,” Laenen says. “For us, it’s what the tree wants to grow and what the customer wants.” 

Crews at Kimball harvest in April or May, then again in the middle of summer and again at the end of the year. “Once you pick off the 48s, the rest of the fruit will continue to grow,” Laenen says. “Luckily, avocados can survive on a tree for months, maturing but never ripening. The ripening process begins only when the fruit is picked.

Special shears, ladders and picking poles are used to reach and pick the avocados by hand, at which time they are placed into harvesting bags that hold 100 to 200 pieces of fruit. “Our employees have been with us for many years and are geniuses at feeling an avocado and knowing if it’s the right size or not,” Laenen says.

Packing

Once picked, it’s important to transport avocados quickly to a packing house where they can cool, ripen and be sized and sorted for shipment to retail and foodservice destinations. Kimball uses a local packing house and can have its avocados delivered within 12 hours after harvest. “We deliver our fruit directly to the packing house, three bins at a time, each bin weighing about 1,000 pounds,” Laenen says. “The guys pick it, and our foreman drives it to the packing house the same day.”

Processing

At an avocado packing house, avocados are graded, sized, cooled to halt the ripening process or pre-ripened for some customers. Because some restaurants need to use avocados immediately, pre-ripening them via a ripening chamber is often requested prior to shipment. Sizes range from 36 to 84 count, with 48 and 60 count being the most popular in foodservice. Avocados are sorted into grades #1 and #2; the #2 avocados are typically used in foodservice because the outer skin is slightly blemished. And because packers can halt ripening or speed it up, operators and chefs can tailor their order to any menu or recipe by requesting their avocados as firm/pre-conditioned, breaking or ripe.

“Avocados are primarily grown by family farms and small family businesses; my dad and I do it because we love it and we have a passion for it,” says Laenen. “There are a lot of things that make it very challenging that are outside our control, but every time you cut into an avocado and it’s perfect and beautiful and tastes delicious, it makes us proud of what we do.”

Originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of National Culinary Review.

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