The thick and thin of growing

By Jen Scoular, September 2020

We have recently undertaken a survey of growers to better understand what motivates them to grow avocados. A wonderful and very common thread through the responses from growers was the passion they have for avocados, less advantageous was that the energy required was to get them through the thick and thin of avocado growing.

The thick perhaps is the never ending challenge of growing avocados, the thin the very varied returns from avocados. There are reputedly nearly 1,000 varieties of avocados around the world, most having originated in central or south America. New Zealand’s cooler, windier and wetter climate poses a large initial challenge, mitigated in part through very good site location. Avocados are also very poor at pollination, where nearly 1,000 flowers might produce just 3-6 fruit. Compare that to kiwifruit where optimal pollination results in nearly one fruit for every flower. A couple of examples growers face, knowingly, mitigating those challenges with additional bees, flower pruning and farming light availability.

The thin end is what the grower gets at the end of the season for their fruit. Supply and demand work very well for economies, and as a producer of premium food and beverage, New Zealanders are all very aware that without great demand from consumers, just increasing the supply doesn’t mean the value received goes up.

We very much enjoy the tail wind that is driving increasing consumer demand for the wonderfully healthy avocado, and in fact at times, fail to be able to supply as much as those consumers demand, except for the years we supply twice as much. It might sound like an exaggeration, but avocado yields vary hugely from one season to the next, sometimes without growers or industry experts knowing why. Climate may have played its hand or we might have had changes in orchard management, but it’s an inherent attribute of the Hass avocado tree to yield very well one year and very poorly the next.

So the thin end for growers is trying to balance the good years and the not so good years, in terms of the return they receive from the varied annual volumes their orchard produces. Add to that the vagaries of confirmed market prices, exchange rates, the need to air-freight rather than sea-freight, the return from a lower export pack-out, and the thin end gets pointier, or even less consistent.

This season we are seeing a much smaller size profile in New Zealand avocados. New Zealand is well known for growing big avocados, but not this year. Not only will it take more avocados to fit into a 5.5kg tray but smaller avocados retail for less than large avocados. So another hit to the bottom line. My message here isn’t seeking sympathy for the plight of the avocado grower, because we know they mostly love growing avocados. My message is about the expectation of consistency of return or income.

Our growers, and I’m sure growers across many sectors face uncertainty around their income every single season. Will my income go up or down more than 30%? Probably. Is there a subsidy to help me through the lean times? No. But we hope there are more up years than down years, and we manage that as essential producers of food for New Zealand and the world.

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