The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Avocado Farmer

Avocado Farmer

From the Farmer's Tractor

December 28, 2008

Duncan Abbott, 73, farms Hass avocados in Carpinteria, California. His family-run Abbott Ranch also grows lemons, flowers, and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Abbott, who has worked in the industry for over 50 years, practices sustainable farming on his lush 70 acres.

How did you get into avocado farming?

My father bought his first ranch when he was 22. I was raised on a farm and spent all my summers working on my father’s farm. But before taking up farming as a profession, I decided to get a business degree and spent close to 20 years working in finance. There came a time when I knew I could do more than sit behind a desk, and I came back to Carpinteria, starting as a partner and then eventually owning the place. Of course, so much of farming is business, so in some ways the two careers weren’t so opposite.

We sell our avocados through Calavo, the largest avocado packer in the world. Hass has become the go-to avocado for many markets because it ships well and has the longest shelf life.

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

We’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. One change was the move into organics for part of our crop. Another big change has been the move toward a global economy. Now that imports allow consumers access to seasonal items year round, we have a lot more competition from places like Chile and Mexico. Luckily, California avocado season is long, starting as early as January. We can sell our avocados all the way from March through November.

Perhaps the most important change is the trend to have more direct contact with buyers. My son helped us move into Farmer’s Markets, and we also now sell directly to many restaurants. We improve our profits this way, but we also get to forge a relationship with the consumer. For chefs, they get the benefit of traceability.

How will avocado farming evolve in the next five years?

Direct sales will continue to be a big thing, as will Farmer’s Markets. In my opinion, local buying is a trend that is here to stay. Organics will continue to grow as well.

What is your greatest challenge as an avocado farmer?

Competition from imports is a challenge. We have to stay on top of the market. Another challenge that any farmer has is with pests. The avocado thrip and the persea mite both require sprays. Since we farm part of our crop organically, we have to be careful with the types of sprays we use, and of course, conventional sprays are more effective than organic sprays, so it gets tricky. Avocados also get root rot, and so, to stay sustainable, we’ve developed some rot-resistant root stock through breeding and other means.

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

We’re meeting with the consumers all the time so we can see the trends. That way, we can get their idea of what they expect in the future. For many, avocados have become a staple, and we know that the buyers will be here for years to come.

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

We’re doing a whole lot. Our land is fairly flat, so rains and storms don’t wash away soil. We’re not big on spraying for the weeds, so we’ve planted a ground cover of clover. The clover helps to put nitrogen back in soil and it prevents the soil from washing away. It’s also a great place for beneficial bugs to live.

We work to conserve water as well. We water just the trees and not between. And we put out a lot of mulch on the crop in the form of chipped wood or green waste from the cities. One way to get rid of root rot is with wood chips, and so mulch is an organic way to fight fungus. Water is really precious and farmers are struggling these days to get the water they need. For now, we have our own well, but cut backs are hurting farmers in other regions.

Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

We sell at Farmer’s Markets in Santa Barbara, Montecito, Ojai and Goleta. With my son’s help, we’ve developed a reputation for having some of the best fruit around.

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?

Very favorable. Consumers like the direct selling approach and they like to develop a relationship with the farmer. Over time, they really get to know you and your approach to farming, and the relationship thrives. It’s both interesting and good business.