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Diners between guac and a hard place – In the heart of avocado country, a shortage

Recently a rider in a local taxi was heard to remark that he had gone to an Escondido restaurant, ordered guacamole, and had been told it wasn’t on the menu. This was a Mexican restaurant.

The rider told the restaurant server that he would come back to eat there when they started serving guacamole again.

Some Escondido restaurants are finding that it is costing them too much green for the popular fruit, a culinary treat that natives of this area have grown to consider part of their birthright—like breathing clean air. How do you make a California Roll without avocados? Or a tostada? How many dishes can you think of that include slices of avocado garnishes? And, horrors! Can you make avocado toast without avocados? Probably not.

Last week the president of Farmer Boys, which operates two restaurants in Escondido, sent out a letter to patrons that said, “We know you’re disappointed by our recent avocado shortage. The good news is we’re beginning to get avocados back into our restaurants. However, a lot of the avocados we’re receiving are hard and can’t be used on our burgers, sandwiches or salads until they ripen. This week, there will be times we’re serving avocados and times we’re not.”

Alex MacLachlan, an area avocado grower who once ran the “Avocado Grill” on Grand Avenue, and now heads the Escondido Downtown Business Association, told The Times-Advocate this week: “I’ve gotten calls from downtown restaurants asking if I have any secret sources for a fair price. Last time I heard they were $90 for a 25-pound box when they’re usually around $30. Restaurants are having to remove their menu items with avocado until the market balances.”

Maclachlan is himself sort of a poster child for the County’s shortage of avocados. Last year when what he calls “the governor’s shotgun approach drought policy damaged my trees so badly I had to take drastic measures to save them,” he “stumped” his trees. That means he cut them off at the top, which allowed them to live with minimal water. “They are thriving now growing lots of green branches and leaves, but I won’t get any fruit for a couple more years. So, I just spend money and time on them waiting for viability to return.”

Not all restaurants are having problems though. We called La Tapatia on Grand Avenue, and were told, “Yeah! We have it” Another restaurant that has guacamole is Cenote Grill. “Oh yes, we have it, and it’s fresh!” said the person on the other end of the phone. Other restaurants that carry the green elixir include TJ Tacos and Los Charros. When we called Swami’s Café and asked if they had it, they said: “That’s really funny. Yes, we do.” Chilis, which has a signature guacamole they make at your table, still has that. So, while you might find a restaurant that doesn’t serve guacamole, most do.

But that doesn’t mean the prices haven’t gone up.

California, which for years has been the leading producer of the fruit, produced fewer avocados last year than in previous years. According to the Orange County Register, quoting the California Avocado Commission, it produced almost 50% fewer of the fruit than 2016. The culprit is this year’s extreme heat and the remnants of last year’s drought.  When the rains finally arrived last year, it was too late to affect this year’s crop.

A drop in supply means a rise in prices, especially for restaurants, which typically buy the best available avocados in bulk.  Consumers can still find plenty of local stands that sell avocados for $5 a bag, and Ralphs, for instance, still has them at $1 apiece. But that’s not where restaurants get their supply.

In San Diego County avocados were the fourth largest crop, at $136,225,815. It accounted for 9% overall of total crops. According to the County’s annual agricultural crop report, the value of avocados rose by 23%. That was true even though the number of acres planted was the lowest in five years. That, of course, translates into more expensive fruit.

We contacted Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau who provided countywide acreage figures for avocados:

2006  26,012

2011  17,673

2016  17,741

These numbers come from the County Department of Agriculture’s Crop Report for each year.

Larson said, “As you know, acreage dropped dramatically as water prices spiked. But as you can see acreage stabilized over the past five years. The local avocado harvest season ended several weeks ago and was a low crop year.  If a current shortage exists in restaurants, my best guess is it would be due to either reduced imports or prohibitive prices.”

Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District, which serves Valley Center and large parts of unincorporated Escondido, noted that the current acreage in the district devoted to avocados is between 6,000-6,500. “Quite a drop from 14,832 in 2005, like fifty-six percent,” he said. “It should be mentioned that Avocado production is up per acre with advanced horticultural practices, including dense plantings, so tonnage of fruit is important as well. “

So with the precipitous drop on VC Avocado production, which has also happened across all of North County, the fruit demand has been met by imports, primarily from Mexico. With production down in Mexico and the lack of California fruit, a shortage should be expected.

Arant explained why this happened.  “In 2005 ag water was $528/acre foot. Right now, it’s $1,498/AF, a 184% increase over 12 years, or an average of 15%/year. It’s a wonder that there is any ag left at all.”

Statewide, avocado production fell 46% to 215 million pounds from 401 million pounds last year, says the California Avocado Commission.

At the same time, Mexican growers are also selling fewer avocados across the border this year. However, more and more of the fruit are starting to enter the U.S. market from the new harvest and  and so whatever shortage there is now will eventually be alleviated in a few weeks.

The avocado season in California is over and won’t resume until November and will peak in March.

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