By Doug Ohlemeier, The Packer

Florida avocado grower-shippers began their new season in late May with higher production and quality and more optimism following successive years of hurricanes that damaged their groves.

Growers began first pickings May 21. While growers are expecting to pick avocados in light volume through the end of June, promotable volume isn't expected until the Fourth of July holiday, shippers said.

Florida normally ships avocados from the Fourth of July through the Super Bowl, with volume decreasing in February and in March.

Estimates call for up to 1 million bushels or 4.4 million equivalent 12.5-pound flats, double last season's 520,792 bushels, or 2 million equivalent flats.

Neal Palmer "Pal" Brooks, owner of Homestead, Fla.-based Brooks Tropicals Inc., the deal's leading grower-shipper, said he has not seen such quality since 2003, Florida's last normal avocado shipping season.

A REBOUND CROP

During the 2006-07 season, Miami-Dade County production was rebuilding from the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes that ravaged the region.

Brooks Tropicals plans to ship 550,000 bushels or 2.2 million equivalent 12.5-pound flats, about half of the deal's avocados, said Mary Ostlund, director of marketing.

A drought that has scorched south Florida produce production hasn't harmed the region's avocado trees, she said.

Ostlund said the region has experienced average to below-average rainfall.

She said the season should bring nice sizings. Ostlund said she thinks there should be plenty of 10-12 count avocados -- among the most popular sizes. While Florida avocado sizings range from the larger 7s to the smaller 24s, the 7s, 8s, 9s, 10s and 12s account for a majority of production, she said.

Peter Leifermann, president of Fresh King Inc., Homestead, said he expects July and August to bring a huge crop that will offer many opportunities for retail promotions.

"The people I've talked to say the trees out there are breaking," he said. "The limbs are breaking because there's so much fruit on them."