Drought carves up avocado acreage

09/07/2012 03:00:00 PM
Jim Offner

Whether it’s La Niña or chance, Chile has dealt with overly dry conditions during the past couple of years, and it has cut into agriculture production, including avocados, according to exporters.

According to data collected by the website mundomanz.com, the weather station in Concepcion, Chile, near the capital, Santiago, recorded 21 inches of rain for 2012 through August, including less than 1 1/2 inches in July.

The area received just over 22 inches of rain year-to-date through August 2011 and nearly 25 inches in the same date range in 2010. By comparison, five years ago, the area got about 50 inches of rain from January through August.

The country’s Ministry of Agriculture reported in August that an “intense and prolonged” drought had affected water supplies.

The ministry described 10 “comunas,” or districts, in Chile’s central Coquimbo region as “catastrophe areas,” according to a report from French news agency AFP. The government announced plans to provide about $140 million in aid to affected areas.

Avocado marketers said the dry conditions would cut into an off-bearing crop that was already expected to be lower.

“We’re still looking at 135 million pounds, which is lower than last year’s about 175 million, and it’s largely due to lack of production due to the drought,” said Maggie Bezart, marketing director with the Chilean Avocado Importers Association, Washington, D.C.

Dry conditions hit avocados especially hard, Bezart said.

“Avocados actually need a lot of water, which is why in California you’ve seen reduction in a lot of production in southern districts. They really need water,” Bezart said.

Chilean avocados are grown largely in mountainous regions that can provide water from snowmelt, but nothing beats rainfall, Bezart said.

“They have a lot of natural water from the Andes, but pumping that water is expensive,” she said.

This year, even a thaw in the mountains will provide relatively little help, Bezart said.

“They’ve had a very mild winter, with very little snowfall,” she said.

Bezart estimated as much of one-third of Chile’s 90,000 acres devoted to avocados has sustained damage from the drought.

“Before that, they had a major freeze, so it hasn’t been a great last few years,” she said.

The weather is only one contributor to the water woes, though, said Tom Tjerandsen, managing director for North America with the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, Sonoma, Calif.

Chile’s mining industry, led by copper — the country’s No. 1 export — is a factor, Tjerandsen said.

“Copper prices worldwide have been skyrocketing, and copper mining requires an awful lot of water,” he said.

Therefore, he said, mines are buying up water contracts from the agricultural sector.

“It’s actually possible for a grower to make more money selling their water contracts than they can from growing fruit, so the mining industry is competing with the agricultural industry for finite quantities of water,” he said.

The short-term effects of the drought are obvious, marketers said.

The long-term fallout remains an unanswered question, said Doug Meyer, sales and marketing director with Temecula, Calif.-based West Pak Avocado Inc.

“It has hurt certain growers within certain growing regions within Chile and some of those have been affected more than others, depending on water supply and runoff and water collections in those regions, but to my knowledge, there hasn’t been a longterm strategic plan on longterm viability of the Chilean market and Chilean avocados to the U.S.,” he said.

The industry is resilient and will get through the dry spell, said Ross Wileman, vice president of sales and marketing with Oxnard, Calif.-based Mission Produce Inc.

“I think they’re still going through it,” he said.

“They’re hoping El Niño will kick in and play a role because it’s just the start of their rainy season.”



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