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Originally published Tuesday, May 4, 2010 at 10:10 PM

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Demand blossoms for avocados

Global demand has blossomed for the avocado, once considered an expensive luxury. Touted for its energizing nutritional qualities, the avocado has turned up on lists of super foods and as an Oprah favorite. Now after three years of light crops because of a major freeze in 2007 and a heat spell in 2008 that affected last year's supply, it's finally a robust year for avocado growers.

Ventura County Star

VENTURA COUNTY, Calif. — For years, bananas have been advertised as the perfect food, but Steve Barnard doesn't think so.

"I think it's getting dislodged," said Barnard, CEO of Oxnard, Calif.-based Mission Produce, an avocado importer, packer and shipper. "I think the avocado is giving it a run for its money."

Global demand has blossomed for the green fruit, once considered an expensive luxury. Touted for its energizing nutritional qualities, the avocado has turned up on lists of super foods and as an Oprah favorite.

As Mission Produce ramps up to meet the demand, the company has been shipping about 32 million pounds of avocados a week — and that's just in the United States.

"We're shipping record numbers," Barnard said.

After three years of light crops due to a major freeze in 2007 and a heat spell in 2008 that affected last year's supply, it's finally a robust year for avocado growers.

"Finally, the trees have recovered and we're off and running," Barnard said. "It's not a record, but it's a larger crop."

About 84 million pounds of avocados are expected to be consumed around the Cinco de Mayo holiday alone, with outstanding quality fruit from California in abundance this year, said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission.

Barnard estimates a 20 percent increase this year in consumption, which had previously been hampered by lack of supply.

There's pent-up demand, Barnard said, that's being met by good value and good prices.

"Last year, prices got extremely high, and there were early shipments of slow maturity fruit, which really turned off the consumer,"he said.

Production up

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California this year will produce about 470 million pounds of avocados, compared with a historic light crop of 170 million pounds last year, DeLyser said.

In 2009, many growers in the southern district were required to reduce water use by 30 percent, so they stumped their groves — cut their trees and took them out of production, DeLyser said.

"This year, we've had ideal growing conditions, good rains, ideal temperatures and a good fruit set on the fruit trees," she said.

The external quality of the fruit is "gorgeous," DeLyser said, adding that it tastes as good as it looks.

"It's got the full nutty, buttery flavor."

While last year's shortage meant volume started winding down in July and was finished in early August, growers anticipate this year's volume will remain strong through October.

"This was a good, good year for growing avocados," said Lee Cole, president and CEO of Calavo Growers in Santa Paula, a leading marketer of avocados and other fresh produce.

Despite this year's heavier crop, demand for avocados far exceeds California's supply, making the state reliant on imports from Mexico and Chile.

During the past three years, the United States consumed about 1 billion pounds of avocados each year, the majority imported from Mexico, Cole said.

Good year seen

"It's definitely going to be a growth year for avocados," Cole said. "Consumers have been waiting for the fruit."

Consumption of avocados has increased about 15 percent annually for the past seven or eight years, he said.

Despite the healthy increase in supply, Cole doesn't expect to see much decline in prices.

Growers are fetching about 65 cents a pound for small avocados and about $1 a pound for large ones, Cole said.

Part of the reason for the avocado's popularity has been a strong push from avocado commissions in Mexico, Chile and the United States. Among the three organizations, about $50 million is spent annually on advertising the fruit, he said.

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