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Business & Economy

New Growing Technique Could Save Drought Stricken Avocado Farmers

Lesley McClurg
Capital Public Radio

Farmers are being widely criticized during the California drought because of agriculture's water use, but some farmers are cutting back by employing new techniques. Lesley McClurg visited an avocado grower who is using half as much water to yield twice as much fruit. 


It wasn’t long ago that avocados were a luxury crop, but the fruit’s popularity has soared in recent years… demonstrated by the sandwich chain Subway.

For the last several years the featured sub has included avocados.

If an avocado was grown in the U.S. it most likely ripened in California where 90 percent of the nation’s crop originates.

The majority of the state’s groves are in San Diego County, and the heart is the small town of Escondido.

The Avocado Grill is a popular place to eat downtown. Sliced, diced or pureed avocados dress up everything on the menu. 

Posters in the restaurant tout the nutritional value of avocados. Colorful boxes highlight that the fruit is sodium and cholesterol free. Plus, it’s full of “good fats.” 

Nick Stehley’s avocado farm is about twenty minutes outside of town at the end of a long twisting road.

Numerous farms along the way have been deserted. They’re now barren hillsides. 

I caught up with him working in a small grove of avocado trees.

“Just taking out some weeds here,” says Stehley. “Sometimes you get a rock there.”

He says weeds can suck up a lot of water. And, he’s protecting every drop he can. He’s removing trees and fallowing fields on two thirds of his 800 acre farm this year.

“Literally shut stuff off, or like all that wood out there were trees once upon a time,” says Stehley.    

He points to a pile of dead lemon trees that will be cut into firewood soon. Below the wood pile is an empty pond. 

He says he’s never weathered a drought like this one in nearly fifty years of farming.

“Ah, it’s worrisome,” says Stehley. “It’s a booger to sleep at night sometimes worrying that your crop will hold on and take care of the water prices and stuff like that.”

He’s paying about $1600 dollars for an acre foot of water. That’s an all time high, and it’s nearly the most expensive water in the state.

He says at that price he can hardly break even, but he’s not ready to give up.

“But, God when you got avocados in your blood it’s hard to get rid of them sometimes,” says Stehley.

Stehley is hopeful a new growing technique might save him.

"We've been growing avocados wrong all these years and we're finally starting to figure it out." - Gary Bender

The mastermind is Gary Bender. He’s a University of California avocado specialist and farm adviser in San Diego County.

“So, the idea is: What’s our maximum yield per acre so we can actually pay these water bills and keep these guys in business,” says Bender.

Bender’s answer is higher density planting.

Instead of the standard distance of twenty feet apart he just ran a trial where he planted  trees ten feet apart. And, then instead of letting the trees grow tall -- which is the standard practice. He pruned them regularly to keep the trees short and fat… kind of like a Christmas tree farm.

The study was a huge success yielding nearly 13,000 pounds of Haas avocados per acre.

“We’re producing twice as much fruit for a little bit less water,” says Bender.


“This seems easy, why hasn’t it been done before?” I ask.

“Sounds pretty simple doesn’t it?” answers Bender.

“Yeah,” I say.  

“We’ve been growing avocados wrong all these years and we’re finally starting to figure it out,” says Bender.

Nick Stehley hopes the higher density planting could be the key to staying in business.

“Oh, it’s fantastic news,” raves Stehley. “Get these trees to grow and produce. It’s uh… again any farmer is going to like that that’s for sure.”

Bender is optimistic about the second harvest. He points to numerous sprouting blossoms in the trial grove.

“We actually counted we got a million flowers on a tree,” says Bender.

He says higher density trials are starting in other crops like apples, olives and mandarins.

Close plantings haven’t been popular in California in the past because it’s easier to harvest and spray pesticides when trees are far apart.

But, traditional methods don’t work as well during a drought.

“I really think if we’re going to stay in avocados especially in the high water price districts we’re going to have to go to something like this,” says Bender.