The roller coaster — powered by alternate bearing years — that is the California avocado industry is streaking into another low production valley.

The volume could be as much as 300 million pounds lighter than last year’s bumper crop of 534 million pounds, grower-shippers said. But the issue likely to dominate the 2011 California deal is prices.

“This is an unprecedented market,” Doug Meyer, vice president of sales and marketing for West Pak Avocado Inc., Temecula, Calif., said March 1. “Never in our history have we had these kinds of prices in early March.”

Those per-carton prices were above $45, and they may strengthen come summer.

California’s low volume is not the only contributing factor to the steep prices. A freeze in Chile and just so-so Mexican production also are to blame along with a chilly California winter that found most groves as much as a month behind on maturity.

The quality of the fruit when it hits the shelves is and will continue to be very good to excellent, according to grower-shippers.

“Growers are letting the crop size out,” said Rob Wedin, vice president of sales and marketing for Calavo Growers Inc., Santa Paula, Calif. “When it sizes, it also brings better flavor, and with the smaller crop we’re going to be able to pick the fruit at its prime.”

There are other advantages for growers, but not necessarily for retail and foodservice.

“If a grower can gain 30% in volume mass by waiting until June or July to pick, that’s money in the bank for him,” said Ross Wileman, vice president of sales and marketing for Oxnard, Calif.-based Mission Produce Inc. “We’ll struggle to meet demand, but I think we’ll get through it.

Despite the smaller crop, no supply gaps are anticipated, grower-shippers said. The emphasis for some producers appears to be less on marketing and more on service.

“For us, it’s much more than the sale,” Meyer said. “Where we’re positioning our company is to really help our customers drive their avocado category.”