By George Bamber
February 1997 – I didn’t start out to be an avocado farmer. My background was sales and marketing, and I wanted to write novels in my spare time. We moved to North San Diego County in 1985 from La Crescenta and wanted some green around us. North San Diego County is basically desert without its imported water and the groves it supports. Avocados seemed like the logical choice since my wife and I liked them, they were considered a good paying crop, and they came with the house and acreage we bought.
Avocados are a forgiving crop
In October 1986, I had bypass surgery and we had no money coming in. My wife had been a regular customer of the Pasadena farmers market since it opened in the 1970s, so she hoped to convert some of our crop into cash while I recovered. The trees seemed to be raining avocados that year. It was a bumper crop (and I thought there were no avocados on the trees when we moved in). We called Laura Avery, the manager of the Santa Monica Market. She had mercy on us and she gave us a temporary spot, I’ve been there ever since, and my wife went back to nursing. Every Wednesday and Saturday you can find me either on Arizona Street in Santa Monica or Victory Park in Pasadena pushing avocados and bad jokes.
What I’ve learned about avocados in the last 10 years is that I knew nothing about avocados when I started.
First, I still can’t look up in the trees and tell you how many avocados I have. A good farmer should be able to do that. Every December when the trees look their worst, I look up into the canopy and announce to my wife that it looks like another thin year. To which she always answers, “You say that every year and we always have a good crop.” It should be a no-brainer, but it’s hard for me to see the difference between green avocado leaves and green avocados. Backlit by the sun, they have almost the same shape.
Second, avocados are the best crop in the world for a lazy, amateur farmer like me. To begin with, 90 percent of avocado farming is water. All you have to be able to do is turn the water off and on. No pruning and trimming, as with citrus and other fruit crops; no plowing, preparing the ground, and weeding, as with row crops. The water is on an automatic timer, so I can do that. The other 10 percent is fertilizers, which go though the watering system, every other week. Sometimes I screw that up.
Third, avocados are a very forgiving crop. They don’t begin to ripen until you pick them. No panic four- to six-week harvest windows as with other crops. With the Hass avocado especially, that means the harvest season extends all the way from December/January until October/November, depending on the year. That’s almost 11 months of harvest time, which means that you can pick 200-300 pounds of avocados a week and take them to farmers markets at your leisure.
The other surprise that came to me, as to most of my customers, is that there are almost as many varieties of avocados as there are apples. Eighty-five percent of all avocados sold are Hass and the remaining 15 percent are divided among all other varieties. These are generally called “green skins,” or as my customer’s say, “the watery kind” or “the stringy kind.”
Sorting Them All Out
As a glittering generality, the green skins are a winter/spring fruit, harvested from October/November through March/April. Green skins generally don’t have the high oil content of the Hass and therefore they don’t have the rich taste. Green skins are excellent in salad, sandwiches or just plain, but in my opinion they don’t do justice to guacamole. Also, in my opinion, the Zutanos are the wateriest, and stringiest of all the green skins, followed by the Bacons and Fuertes. But Fuertes are preferred by some people above all other avocados.
Until 30 years ago, Fuertes held the market position now held by the Hass, but they were toppled by several factors: customer preference for more oil, and a concerted effort by the avocado growers association to replace them with Hass. Growers preferred Hass over green skins because of the longer picking season, (they could wait for the right price), and the Hass ships and handles better. It also ripens more slowly and, in my opinion, more deceptively.
Green skins have a shorter “ripe window” and bruise easily during that time period. Because they stay green as they ripen, instead of turning black like the Hass, they reveal all of their bruises. Brown spots on avocados turn off buyers, just like brown spots do on all fruit, even though, like bananas, it means the avocados are reaching their peak of flavor. Hass avocados also can be bruised during the ripening process, but because the Hass blackens uniformly as it ripens, the discolored meat under the skin is invisible to casual inspection or the uneducated eye. Hence, longer and more sales.
The only flavor exceptions to the green skin story are the Pinkertons and Reeds. (Again, this is all my opinion because arguing about avocado flavors is like arguing about which are the best-eating apples. I’m basically a Michigan boy and I know that everyone will go to war over a different apple.)
The Pinkerton is a marvelous avocado (available from January through March). Pinkertons peel easily — I like to see if I can get the skin off in a single spiral, which can’t be done with any other avocado — and they have a rich, creamy, almost Hass-like flavor. I know it’s spring when I find myself driving to market with one hand, peeling a Pinkerton with my teeth and the other hand and eating it just like an ice cream cone. No salt, no chips, no nothing. Just one of the world’s best avocados.
I take most of my avocados to market ripe and ready to eat. Selling soft avocados almost doubles sales over the less perishable hard green ones, even though there is a 10 percent loss through spoilage. Sampling raises sales another 30 percent. That is why sampling is such an important issue to farmers at the markets. It increases sales and educates customers to less financially rewarding varieties. And if you want a real challenge, try to describe, using words only, the difference between the taste of a Bacon and a Zutano.
People have been sampling food at open markets since time began. I personally think health department officials should be required by law to shop only in supermarket produce departments for the rest of their natural lives.
The other avocado that is to die for is the Reed. I know because my customers pester me all year for it after I’ve hooked them with free samples. The Reed generally harvests from June until October/November, depending on heat conditions for the year. Prolonged heat spells, like wind storms, knock avocados off the trees prematurely.
The Reed’s Virtues
The Reed is the most easily identifiable of all the avocados. It is a big, round, softball-shaped avocado — I call them cannon balls, much to the consternation of avocado purists — and they have a thick, smooth, green skin. Reeds never mush up in salads, as an over-ripe Hass is prone to do, and they keep perfectly in the refrigerator after being cut open for up to a week without turning brown. This is important because Reeds can easily weigh up to a pound and a half, way too much for a live-alone to eat at one sitting, even for the most dedicated avocado gourmand. I rate them above all other avocados in all uses except one, guacamole.
Another value to taste-testing at farmer’s markets is keeping the less commercial avocado varieties attractive to the farmer. The Reed is a perfect example. With their quick-ripening, shorter shelf life and lack of taste familiarity to the buying public, green skins at the packing house always bring in half of what the Hass bring in. That means that if Hass are selling for $1 a pound, you would be lucky to get 50 cents for a pound for Reeds. The land, labor, fertilizer, and water costs remain the same, but the return is half that of a Hass crop. If you were farming 40,000 pounds of Reeds, how long would it take you to cut them down and graft over to Hass? That’s a $20,000 difference. Another no-brainer.
Thanks to the farmers markets, through education and special handling of more perishable fruit, the small farmer like me can charge for the Reed almost as much as we get for the Hass, which makes it economically possible to keep lesser known varieties like the Reeds growing in our groves.
The Best Guacamole
In my opinion, no avocado but the Hass makes outstanding guacamole. When the Hass are in short supply or too expensive, as they generally are in the early spring and late fall, you can stretch it with 50 percent green skins — but only at peril to your reputation. Even the Reeds make an uninteresting guacamole, outstanding as they are in all other uses. If you must use green skins to make guac, I recommend more onion, more spices, and more hot sauce to counteract the blandness.
Fallbrook has an Avocado Festival every spring with a guacamole contest in which we have won two firsts, one second, and two thirds in the last 10 years. When we first moved to Fallbrook, no one was selling any avocados, or guacamole, at the festival, which struck my wife and me as strange. So we started selling our award-winning attempt, calling it “Holy Guacamole!” We now make about 300 pounds of it at every festival. We used to sell it at the Santa Monica farmers market, until they changed the rules requiring the farmer to grow everything he puts in his modified product. Well, I ain’t growing onions, tomatoes and cilantro, or row crops, for anybody.
Due to a concurrent bike race, called the Guacamole Grande, the Fallbrook Avocado Festival has grown to one of the largest and most fun arts, crafts and food festivals in California. If you show up at our booth, let me or my wife know you’re a farmers market regular, or that you read about us here, and we’ll give you $1 off your Holy Guacamole and chips. In guacamole circles, that’s a big deal.
I have found the key ingredient in all avocado sales over the last 10 years has been humor. People come to farmers markets for more than better quality food at slightly lower prices. I think they also come for the human interaction and a good time. In Santa Monica, I have been lucky to work with a very funny sales assistant for the last five years. My customers call him Herman the German. He has one of the greatest senses of humors I have ever encountered. I tell people we aren’t farmers at all, but a night club act breaking in out of town. We opened in Las Vegas with rutabagas and died. Now were trying to build an act around avocados. We think avocados are funnier than rutabagas.
George Bamber grows avocados in Fallbrook, Calif., and sells them at the Santa Monica and Pasadena farmers markets.