There once was a grove

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Soon it will all be chips, but not the kind for guacamole.
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For background on how we got to this point, see this year’s Sukkot planting.

I am often asked what I will do with the land.

If I had the resources, maybe wine grapes, or olive trees. Both were once common in these parts, before cheap water and protected markets led to the “green gold” boom (and the fruit of the vine is making a notable comeback, even very nearby). Both crops are much more adaptable to this climate, for sure. But I do not have the resources. So, for now, think of it as a (very) late start to shmitah.

Or maybe I should plant pinyon pine trees. Pine nuts are twenty dollars a pound at a local market.

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Ladera Frutal’s rail system

At one time, avocados from high up the steep fruited slope of Mt. Ararat were brought down to trucks via this rail car, which ran on a single track.

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In our shed there is an old motor, and around the grove there are several old bins that would have been placed on this car.

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The second photo shows the line from farther up, above LF HQ, the house, and the valley so low (note the banana grove, before the freeze, just above HQ). Alas, the line is not functional. I have always fancied the idea of making it work and planting the highest part of the slope and using this line to get me and materials up the hill. However, it would be costly–and probably not very safe.

I have had a few people come by the finca who have been associated with the avocado business for many years and they usually say they have heard of these devices being used in the area, but are not aware of any other tracks still in place, let alone working systems.

Of course, in some other parts of the world, one can find working systems similar to this–for instance in some Italian vineyards.

Avo graveyard

This is the view now looking west from Ladera Frutal HQ.

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An avocado grove has been stumped and the trunks whitewashed. This is now a common sight in these parts, as trees that had their tops severely killed back in the freeze in January are being prepared for re-grafting on to the still-alive tissues of the trunks.* The whitewashing protects the trunks from sunburn; like many broadleafed evergreens, avocados have thin bark. Deciduous trees tend to have tough bark, because they spend a significant part of their lives without foliar canopy. Obviously, for an evergreen, a lack of canopy is an anomaly.

In the photo, at elevations just below the whitewashed trunks, one can see citrus trees (grapefruit, mostly) which have no damage from the freeze. (The entire canyon is now scented with their blooms!) And on the distant hilltops, the dark green represents avocado trees flourishing where they were planted high above the freeze line.

The following view is to the southeast, also from LF HQ, looking across the canyon. It shows quite starkly how freeze damage is a threshold phenomenon. There is no gradation in the visible damage as one goes up the slope. Rather, there is a line–the precise elevation of which differs with the contours of the hills and their sun exposure and air drainage. Below the line, devastation. Above it, healthy trees.

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The damaged parts of this grove likewise have now been stumped and whitewashed.

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* Or, probably, simply letting them re-sprout, given that they probably have live tissues above the original Hass graft.

A lost gamble

This avocado grove is on the north-facing slope of Moosa Canyon in Bonsall.*

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The mature trees on the ridge are really badly damaged. This hillside is right where two canyons converge, so it certainly would have been hit by a lot of cold air during the freeze in mid-January.

Below the mature trees some saplings had just been planted last summer. In the larger versions of this photo, the white stakes that supported these little trees remain visible. The saplings were probably killed.

This grower took quite a gamble in planting Hass avocados so close to the canyon floor. That’s Moosa Canyon Road visible at the bottom left of the photo (I am standing across the main road from where this grower’s access road heads up the hill.) Here the road is barely above the creek, so this is about as low as the canyon gets. I’d guess the temperature dipped close to 20 at creek level, and was probably below freezing even up where the mature trees are for close to eight hours one night and five or more the next. A gamble lost.
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* We are on the south-facing slope, and this grove is visible from here, a bit to the east.

A threat from Mexico?

Update: See the very interesting comment by Dan.

When the California Avocado Commission objected to federal government plans to expand the amount of Mexican avocados imported into the USA and the range of destinations to which they could be shipped–a policy just implemented last month–critics claimed that the domestic avocado growers were concerned only about market competition. The Commission, which we growers fund by a tax on all Hass avocados that we sell,* always claimed that its (our) opposition was based on legitimate concerns over pests found in Mexico and other countries that we do not (currently) have here in California. Of course, producers who will be subject to import competition always make such “objective” claims, so those who are not the producers always have good reason to be skeptical that opposition to expansion of imports is just protectionism based in economic self-interest.

Well, it turns out growers’ fears are real. While the incidence of armored scale in a recent shipment inspected by the California Department of Food and Agriculture was less than initially reported, the pest is indeed arriving on shipments from the south. The CDFA and the federal officials are currently disputing whether armored scale is a sufficiently serious pest to lead to a ban on shipments. So, this policy issue has a federalist dimension to it, with the state agency being more supportive of producers who are concentrated in its state and the federal agency being more attuned to broader trade interests (exactly as we would expect).

The Mexican government in the past has threatened retaliation against imports of US-grown agricultural products if the liberalization of avocado imports is curtailed. So this policy issue certainly has an international-relations, two-level-games dimension.**

There is little doubt that the armored scale could be a serious pest if it ever were to be released somehow from a shipment of fruit and find its way into a grove in California. Because scale do not move much, the threat is not as great as with other pests like the fruit fly. But the threat is significant. For one thing, there is currently no US-approved pesticide that would combat this type of scale for conventional growers, let alone for those of us who are organic. Most of our current scale problem (from other species) is kept in check by biological controls (natural predators, such as wasps, that are released in groves). But there is currently no known predator for the armored scale. It is likely that such a predator exists in Mexico or elsewhere, but is currently being killed by broad-spectrum pesticides being sprayed in Mexican groves. (Broad-spectrum pesticides kill good bugs as well as bad; the bad bugs often are better at developing resistance and thus surviving chemical warfare than are the good bugs.)

Please buy California and organic avocados if you can!

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* Especially for my students: An excellent case of what I mean by “coercion” of collective action. In order to sell our products legally, we individual growers must pay this tax to support the Avocado Commission’s collective goods of research, marketing, and, yes, lobbying, on behalf of our interests.

** By targeting other US products for import restrictions, the Mexican government could engage domestic actors on this side of the border who otherwise would not care about avocados in opposing limits on avocado imports.

The avocado grove after the freeze

Continuing the photo tour of the damage to Ladera Frutal resulting from the freeze of 2007. It has now been two weeks since the first of five nights of freezing temperatures. Over this time, damage that was not at first apparent has become quite evident.

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Entering the avocado grove from its lowest part, the appearance is really grim. These trees may have survived, but they will be severely set back and may not fruit again for a few years.

However, enter the grove and things start to look a lot better.

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These trees, just a few short steps from the ones in the first photo, are mostly OK. Only the very tops are “burnt” from the freeze. Obviously, the warmth of the trees themselves helped the trees protect one another. These trees will be OK by next year.

Still farther into the grove, and things look almost normal.

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Up at the very top of our grove, you can look out over the entire grove. Only light damage is visible from here. Naturally, given the way cold air sinks, the upper part of the slope sustained less damage.

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At the very top of this photo, however, you can see the neighbor’s grove. Although it is hard to tell from the photo, by the naked eye, even from this far away, it is clear that his trees were severely damaged. I always wondered why anyone would try to grow Hass avocados in the canyon bottom. He planted these trees only a few years ago, and he may have lost them now. (Click here for a view from a lower vantage point, which shows the grey disaster that is his grove.)

Almost all the avocado groves that I have passed by in recent days in the area have considerable damage. However, it is clearly worse on the canyon wall opposite ours–their north slope meant more hours of cold–and in some low-lying areas (like the neighbor’s) that are marginal for Hass avocados even in a normal year. This, of course, has been no normal year.

Many more photos, tagged “freezeof2007” at the Flickr set.

In the avocado grove

The avocado grove–especially after a good pruning–is a pleasant place to enjoy the dappled sun and hear the breeze rustle the leathery leaves, and to admire the fruit and hope it portends better crops and prices to stave off the threat of any rigid pressure.

The Hass grove after pruning, January, 2006

With apologies to James Madison, who I trust never encountered an avocado and certainly never had avocado trees among his fruit experimentation at Montpelier.