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Do alternate varieties offer opportunities for California avocado growers?

It’s no secret that the Hass avocado is the darling of the world. More than 50 years ago, California growers began planting the variety and Mexico followed suit as it eyed the U.S. market, as did Peru and Chile. Colombia began adding Hass acreage to its prodigious supply of native avocados about a decade ago, and it is now also trying to gain access to the lucrative U.S. marketplace.

But is the Hass avocado really the only avocado that consumers will eat?

BellamoreTom BellamoreIn fact, Florida does grow and market its thin-skinned, large green fruit with some success. And at this time of year, some California shippers do have alternate varieties and have experienced good success.

California Avocado Commission President Tom Bellamore believes alternative varieties may offer at least a niche market for California growers as they continue to compete against the growing tide of Hass avocados from various sources.

While California growers argue that their Hass avocado is better during much of their season in the late spring to early fall vs. fruit that travels to the United States from thousands of miles away, no such argument is needed with the other varieties.

Currently only the Hass variety can be imported from Mexico or the other countries.

Bellamore said there is very little worry that a California avocado of the Reed variety, for example, will face direct competition of the same variety from foreign soil. He said CAC board members, as well as others in the industry, are discussing opportunities with other varieties and the concept has some strong advocates.

Bellamore said California is already attempting to distinguish its avocados to discriminating customers by touting its freshness and local appeal, especially to U.S. consumers in the West.

He said adding varieties would expand the portfolio — because they are often harvested at a different time of the year — and also add some year-round marketing punch to the California avocado brand.

“From a marketing perspective, it would be very advantageous to be able to continue talking to consumers all year round about our brand,” he said. “Right now it is very difficult to do that because we don’t have avocados all year round.”

A few shippers are already experiencing success with these “off” varieties.

Jared Bray who handles sales for Stehly Farms Organic in Valley Center, CA, said his packingshed does very well with five different avocado varieties: Zutanos, Bacons, Fuertes, Reeds and Pinkertons.

“It’s a very nice niche for us,” he said. “We actually have a huge following for our Reed avocados.”

Though there are not accurate numbers concerning the total California production of these “off” varieties, some estimate that it could be as high as 5 percent of total volume at this point. This year, that could represent as much as 25 million pounds. Currently much of that production ends up in farmers markets.

Stehly is a producer of organic avocados and Bray said much of the company’s production of organic Reed avocados is sold to Whole Foods, which apparently is very happy with that variety. Bray said it grows larger than the typical Hass with some of the fruit getting as large as two pounds.

“It is my favorite avocado,” he said. “It is nutty and buttery.”

Stehly leaves its Reed variety avocados on the tree as long as possible and tries to market them in the September-through-November time frame, which is at the back end of the California deal.

“By then the oil content is very good and it is just a great piece of fruit,” he said. “I could absolutely ship more if I had them.”

And he added that he always gets a premium for that fruit. He said the other varieties also do well, but the Reed is the real star.

Singing the same tune was Bob Lucy, a partner at Del Rey Avocado Co. in Fallbrook, CA.

“The non-Hass varieties are a very important part of our program,” he said.

Del Rey sells both organic and conventional avocados, and Lucy said the organic production of Reeds is also sold mostly to Whole Foods. But he also has conventional production, which sells for a premium to other retailers predominantly on the West Coast, but there is interest everywhere.

Lucy called the Reed “a big Florida-looking avocado with a pulp that doesn’t quite get as green as the Hass.”

He said the Reed variety has been around for a while but his firm, as well as others, did it a disservice by initially picking it too early.

“We picked it way too early and it didn’t do well,” said Lucy. “Now we keep it on the tree until at least late June and market it in July and August, and it does very well.”

Lucy is quick to say that it has its flaws, including the yellow pulp color that needs to be blended with a Hass for the right guacamole colors. But he said it does offer a niche opportunity for California growers fighting for market share and better pricing.

In fact, Del Rey has made a commitment to that variety, as well as other “off” varieties, by investing in its own nursery to grow root stock.

“One-third of the acreage in that nursery is devoted to Reed,” he said.

Rob Wedin, who is in charge of fresh sales for Calavo Growers in Santa Paula, CA, believes in the concept of expanding California’s variety diversity, but he doesn’t believe the state’s growers have found the right variety yet.

Wedin said most California growers have converted their acreage of Reeds and Fuertes and other varieties to Hass simply because of the economics.

“All other varieties are extremely minor and I don’t really see much opportunity, but I know people are working on some new things and we’d like to see that,” he said. “I just don’t think it is anything we already have.”

He was quick to point out that he does not put the Lamb Hass in that category.

The Lamb Hass is different than the regular Hass, as it has a slightly smoother skin and does tend to grow larger in the early part of the season. But by late June and into July, it behaves like a Hass and is marketed as such.

During the middle of the season, Wedin said the Lamb Hass can account for as much as 15 percent of Calavo’s volume during that period. But again it is largely marketed as a Hass avocado and doesn’t seem to qualify for “off” variety status.

Bellamore said he would like to see more growers add small acreage of the Reed variety precisely to expand the marketing opportunities for growers and the commission.

He said it will take several years to ramp up the volume “even if we start today,” but he added that could coincide perfectly with a growing of that market by shippers and the commission.

And at the end of the day, it could give the “California Avocado” brand an additional way to differentiate itself in the marketplace.

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