California Avocados: Worth the Wait

By Emelyn Chew, CUESA Volunteer
February 24, 2017

Third-generation farmer Will Brokaw of Brokaw Ranch Company is astounded by the unprecedented rise in popularity of avocados over the last 15 years. “I can’t wrap my head around it!” he says.

Once given the funny moniker of “alligator pear” due to its scaly skin, the avocado has surged to the status of a “superfood” and claimed a top spot in America’s fruit baskets. Due to shifting nutritional attitudes and relaxed trade agreements between Mexico and the United States starting in the 1990s, the avocado is now a year-round fixture on restaurant menus and our Instagram feeds, with food bloggers clamoring to feature artfully arranged mashed avocados smothered on toast.

While the growth of the global avocado industry helped to make guacamole America’s Super Bowl dip of choice, California avocado enthusiasts bide their time until late February, when locally grown avocados start their season at farmers markets.

Grandfather of the Hass

The Brokaw Ranch Company traces its roots to La Habra Heights in Los Angeles County, arguably the birthplace of the California avocado industry. Long before the “avocadoization” of California in the 1970s, Will Brokaw’s uncle Harold patented the original Hass avocado in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the patent never paid off: it would take 40 years before the public warmed up to the Hass’s distinctive black, pebbly skin, and by that time the patent already expired.

Today, the Hass (rhymes with “sass,” not “sauce”) is a household name. “Supermarkets and clients only want Hass avocados and have no incentive to buy anything else,” says Will, who grows at least half a dozen more varieties. “While the Hass is what most people are used to, its popularity is well deserved.”

Brokaw Ranch now has 200 acres across Ventura and Monterey Counties, and has been participating in Bay Area farmers markets since the 1990s, earning Will the reputation of the “avocado guy” to many who know him.

In addition to avocados, the farm is also known for its specialty citrus (like Clementines, Kishu mandarins, and Meiwa kumquats) and seasonal subtropical fruits (mangos, cherimoyas, and white guavas), which thrive in the SoCal weather and help fill the farm’s winter avocado gap.

Ripe and Ready

“It all boils down to freshness,” says Will when asked what separates his avocados from those available in supermarkets. Commercial avocados can’t be tree ripened, since they would fall on the ground and be overripe by the time they reach the plate. Instead, avocados are picked hard and then need time to ripen after harvest.

Most avocados are imported from Mexico, Peru, and Chile, and the typical operation packs just-harvested avocados right into cartons. Avocados in the store may be very unripe, or, because of long storage times and multiple distribution points, they may be discolored on the inside and past their prime.

In contrast, Brokaw’s avos are placed in a ripening room, where they are individually sorted and evaluated multiple times before packing, so they’re at the perfect ripeness when sold to farmers market customers or delivered to restaurants. While this makes them slightly more expensive, happy avocado eaters can count on fruit with bright green flesh, optimal flavor, and ready-to-eat texture.

Twenty-First Century Avocados

The precipitous rise in popularity of this creamy, nutty fruit has been a boon for avocado growers, but it has simultaneously ushered in an age of “intensive avocado farming,” which puts increased pressure on avocado producers to maximize their per-acre production with tighter tree plantings. In countries like Mexico, this has fueled illegal deforestation and environmental degradation.

In response to this intensive avocado farming paradigm, Brokaw Ranch uses a combination of sustainable and conventional methods, ensuring that their avocados are produced with care for the ranch’s workers and resources. “We take our water systems very seriously,” says Will. “We have a strong well, and we’ve completely converted to a drought-friendly drip-irrigation system.” Will says many avocado growers water their avocados for long irrigation periods regardless of weather, but Brokaw Ranch closely monitors water demands and soil characteristics to optimize water use, resulting in shorter irrigation times.

In addition, Will says avocado trees at Brokaw Ranch are “babied”: staff take notes of individual trees that appear to be struggling and subsequently nurse them back to health. As such, the avocado groves have a solid green healthy color with virtually no yellow or discolored patches.

Brokaw Ranch also believes in taking care of their staff, who enjoy complete medical and retirement benefits, along with paid vacation, sick days, and low cost, onsite housing when available.

Despite the challenges, Will says the changes of modernization “have made my job a lot more fun.” A lot of time is dedicated to attending seminars and conferences to learn about the best farming techniques, which help his farm to continuously refine their practices and business model to stay current in the changing landscape of avocado farming.

Beyond the Hass: An Avo-Aficionado’s Guide

Here are some common varieties you’ll find at Brokaw Ranch’s farmers market stand throughout the year. Other varieties grown in small quantities include Carmens, Bacons, Zutanos, Nowells, and Gems.

Hass (late February-August): The most commercially popular avocado worldwide, the Hass avocado comprises 99% of domestic avocado production, and is characterized by its durable, pebbly skin that turns from dark green to black when ripe.

Fuerte (March-April): Prior to the Hass, this was the dominant commercial variety in the 20th century. Green and smooth-skinned, the Fuerte is very high in fat, has an excellent flavor, and ripens beautifully.

Gillogy (June-July): This is a relatively new variety has a black skin and a long, narrow shape, resembling a Japanese eggplant. They ripen well and make for a solid, high-quality avocado.

Gwen (August-December): The Gwen is available in the fall and winter, when almost all California avocado production has otherwise been exhausted. Like the Hass, the Gwen has thick, pebbly skin but remains green when ripe. Despite the nontraditional color, avocado eaters are eventually won over by the Gwen’s creamy gold-green flesh and nutty, buttery texture. The fruit oxidizes slowly, enabling it to remain bright green for extended periods of time.

Reed (October-November): An oft-misunderstood variety, the round and shiny Reed is almost twice the size of a Hass. It would appear to be a thin-skinned, watery, and tasteless tropical avocado—but this could not be further from the truth! The Reed has the thickest skin of any variety, is high in fat and flavor, and ripens well. 

Find Brokaw Ranch Company at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays and Tuesdays.

Will Brokaw photo by Gary Yost Photography.

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