When I was a boy, every family in my San Diego barrio with a yard had an avocado tree or two. Up the road, the San Diego County town of Fallbrook called itself the avocado capital of America.
During my teenage years, my family bought a 100 avocado tree orchard just outside San Diego city limits. With the help of University of California Davis literature, I became an avocado grower.
During the September to April season, I picked avocados, boxed them every weekend and was driven to mom and pop grocery stores by my dad; I sold the boxes of 30-40 avocados for 15 cents each.
California avocado production grew and grew domestically and branched out internationally to Japan and China. But, like thousands of others, our acres of avocados were eventually plowed under and
replaced by townhouses. In the meanwhile, demand continued to grow; Then came the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.
Mexico is the ancestral home of avocados; Nonetheless, Mexican avocados were banned by the U.S. government in the early 20th century. The excuse was that California avocado producers worried that Mexican avocado fruit flies would come north and destroy the San Diego-based industry. Politics and money kept Mexican avocados out of the U.S. for almost 100 years. That kept demand down by keeping supply down.
Thousand tree orchards in San Diego’s North and East County, Orange, Riverside, Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties flourished shipping avocados throughout the United States. These very same growers became victims of their own success. They couldn’t meet demand. NAFTA opened up the U.S. to Mexican avocados; first in Eastern states, then after a couple of years nationwide. For the first time, supply met demand.
Mexican avocados flowed north for the first time in almost a century and helped create even more demand. Then came the long drought and heat that affected this year’s crop a year ago before the great rains of 2016-17 arrived, too late to save much of today’s crop.
“We lost fruit that would have sized up to be this year’s crop,” says Jan DeLyser, of California’s Avocado Commission, a state-sponsored avocado grower trade group. Mexico’s avocado producers in the state of Michoacan have experienced similar weather complications as well as some organized labor problems. Thus, they are shipping less as well.
California avocado production this year is forecast to plunge 46 percent to 215 million pounds from 401 million pounds in 2016, according to the California Avocado Commission.
The Hass Avocado Board, a state-sponsored promotion group named after the main variety of California avocados, said production in the state in the week that ended Aug. 6 was 3.74 million pounds, just one-third of the 10.7 million pounds produced in the same week last year.
Lower production in the face of growing popularity is a problem manifested – naturally — in higher prices.
Starbucks announced earlier this year that its organic avocado spread would be available at its stores nationwide. Starbucks is not cheap, nor are the avocados it buys nationwide to serve to people willing to pay big money for coffee, muffins and now avocado toast.
“When supply is tight and demand is good, prices are … impacted,” DeLyser said. “That’s the situation we’re in right now.” Contracting supply and higher demand equals higher prices but will the joint mass production between Mexico and the U.S. be affected by the current negotiations to change NAFTA?
President Trump campaigned on his view that NAFTA is the worst trade deal the U.S. ever struck — and just Tuesday night, he suggested it would fall apart even as negotiations continue this week over its fate.
California avocado growers might agree as their monopoly was lost to NAFTA.
Mexico now exports 80 percent of its export avocados to the United States.
Under NAFTA the U.S. sells billions worth of subsidized corn to Mexico as it buys a couple billion dollars’ worth of avocados. Win for the U.S., Mr. Trump.
Will President Trump’s NAFTA negotiators destroy avocado imports from Mexico in order to please California avocado growers? Or will they consider making sure that growing American avocado demand is met by NAFTA-created supplies and thousands of growers and workers in the home of avocados, Mexico, as well as those in California?
The cost of growing avocados in California increases every day; Weather, water, labor and potential real estate profits from the sale of groves are cutting California production. Will Trump’s potential
destruction of NAFTA pile on to avocado growing woes of California or will NAFTA allow California’s and Mexico’s production to meet America’s burgeoning demand?
Which will it be? Low-cost guacamole for all or guacamole priced like caviar?
Raoul Lowery Contreras is the author of “The Armenian Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” (Berkeley Press, 2017) and “The Mexican Border: Immigration, War and a Trillion Dollars in Trade” (Floricanto Press, 2016); he formerly wrote for the New York Times’ New America News Service.
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