I have family that left Georgia and moved to Southern California and began rehabilitating and building up an existing avocado grove roughly 5 years ago. Within the past two years they’ve begun to incorporate coffee into the groves too. Coffee is a post for another day, most of the coffee is still in its infancy in the grand scheme of things and such a rarity in this region it deserves special attention. Trust me here, Southern California as a coffee region is fascinating…but today…avocados.
Like all agricultural adventures there’s a lot more to it than sticking it in the ground and waiting for harvest. Avocados seem to be a special brand of pain in the ass. They aren’t ideally suited for the region. They require quite a lot of water, human intervention to keep from being sun burnt, protection from high winds, and extremes in temperature. California seems to be the epitome of where avocados, citrus, berries, and other amazing food crops shouldn’t be growing, but mankind has found a way and there is an enormous amount of produce that comes out of that state. The family works this magic and keeps these trees alive and producing. I’ve heard the worry in my Aunt’s voice when winter days are predicted to be colder than they should be, and summer days scorching new growth. I’ve been in the grove myself hours after a driving rain and hurricane force winds to help cut away snapped branches heavy with fruit and seen pounds of it on the ground, now destroyed. Let’s add to it that this farm is also organic which is its own set of special rules and care Every tree requires maintenance, and problems that may pop up need to be discovered and handled early before they affect greater portions of a tree or God forbid other trees. On top of that, young trees may take 5 or more years before they start producing fruit. Farming on a commercial-scale is by no means easy, especially when it’s on a small family ran farm. A lot of man hours by only a tiny handful people keep the show going.
There’s a reason I don’t flinch much at the pricing when I see quality avocados.
I got the opportunity to pick for the first time this weekend. The farm had an order for 600 pounds due for pickup Saturday morning, so I got the crash course in picking, sorting, and boxing.
There’s a lot to take away from this experience. First thing, I really need to mail an old pair of hiking boots to the farm for my future grove adventures when I drop in. This farm like many others in the region are on hillsides, some so steep pickers need climbing gear for safety reasons. Thankfully, the family farm is no where that steep, but these trees require mulching and it’s not hard to slip navigating around trees. The slip on, virtually no tread, shoes I brought with me just didn’t cut it, but the job needed done, so a baby stepped down the hillside and around the trees.
Picking ain’t easy. Low hanging fruit is plucked pretty quickly but you have to find it first. I easily missed a few at knee height that my Aunt swooped in and harvested. The avocados themselves do not vary much in color from the leaves around them, I’m also somewhat convinced they have mini-invisibility cloaks they toss on when they sense their impending doom. Getting higher in the branches takes a bit more skill. Picking baskets are put on poles and you’re expected to maneuver this thing through the branches, position the fruit between some prongs, give a tug and hope to hell you don’t drop the damn thing. If the fruit hits the ground it’s toast, and not hipster toast, it can’t be sold. Unless I wanted to eat all my dropped avocados as punishment (after a third avocado in a row, they lose their novelty) this skill had to be learned quickly. I fought for five minutes to get my first basket picked avocado. I was informed that cussing at avocados stuck in the tree is the first sign that my mind is going. If that’s true, I’m in trouble.
Bucket after bucket is filled and loaded on the farm utility vehicle to be transported back up the hill to the sorting space. Walking into this space, there are mountains of boxes pre-made and ready to be filled in 25 pound increments. Being on an organic farm, and following FDA guidelines, hands get washed, everything gets properly wiped down, and then the sorting begins. Every single avocado gets weighed and sorted into a box based on its size. Avocados are a little sneaky, and it’s ill-advised to sort them by eye. It was surprising to see how many times I would think one these things would be a medium would actually be considered a large. I’m using small, medium, and large loosely here. These boxes are filled with sizes based on how many fruits should be in a 25 pound box. Oh and guess what? If you drop it inside, it’s a dead avocado…again. Sorting goes pretty quickly when you get into a rhythm, after a box is filled, weighed, and if need be adjusted by pound or so, it’s dated, labeled, and stacked on the pile for pickup. Then shortly thereafter, because avocados begin ripening pretty quickly once picked, they are purchased, loaded onto the truck and on the way to the local restaurants this particular client owns.
That’s avocados in a nutshell. Well, that’s more like avocados over simplified, and as I’ve said before, if it is an option in your area, shop small, shop local. Local farmers depend on us too!