Pacific Produce avos Peru

Peru flooded the European market last year

The stratospheric rise of the avocado category is probably the greatest fresh produce success story in recent memory, but with such rapid growth can come compromise, and the green goldrush has not been without its pitfalls. Two major challenges stand out in this regard, namely internal quality and the tendency for avocado trees to adopt an alternate bearing cycle.

The rampant increase in demand for avocados means some fruit with questionable internal quality can make it through the system, prompting “fewer complaints than there sometimes should have been”, according to Rob Cullum of Pacific Produce. The newer production regions of Kenya and Colombia have a less consistent reputation for internal quality, he claims, with both countries ramping up production in recent years to fill certain gaps in global supply.

“There used to be defined periods of real shortage, but growers around the world have reacted and they’re filling those gaps,” Cullum explains. “Some places have won market share by hitting windows, but the quality isn’t always there. Can they improve? Yes. Are they up against big challenges? Yes.”

In Colombia the main challenge is the weather, with growers in the country’s jungle-covered highlands contending with a wide range of weather patterns. “It’s not that they’re bad growers, it’s just that they’ve got particularly challenging conditions to grow in,” says Cullum. “Their advantage is that they can grow pretty much year-round, and hitting the windows is great, but if you’re selling a ripened product, other sources offer greater stability.” The most renowned countries for consistent quality, according to the importer, are Peru, South Africa, Israel, Spain, Chile and Mexico.

As one of the UK’s biggest importers of Peruvian produce, it is perhaps unsurprising that Cullum includes the South American nation in his list, but he also doesn’t refrain from criticising the Peruvian avocado sector, which he says flooded the European market last year. “Last year, Peru shipped too much fruit to Europe in the main part of its season, and for the first time in ages avocado was being pushed around at very low prices – lower than the cost of production.”

Part of the problem was that avocado trees tend to be alternate bearing, as mentioned earlier, and if several major sources produce large volumes in the same season, markets can become flooded, and prices can collapse. Last year, crucially, Mexico and California also had heavy seasons, and since the US accounts for a large percentage of Peru’s exports, “Peru got scared and sent too much to Europe,” Cullum says. “In hindsight, that was a mistake – the US market actually held up – but you can see that even in a product that people call green gold, it doesn’t take much for a market to go from famine to feast.”

Fortunately, Cullum doesn’t see the same happening this season for two reasons: firstly, Peru’s avocado volumes are predicted to be slightly down on last year, and secondly, the US market is expected to return to its normal supply balance, with California set for a short season.

As for Pacific Produce, Cullum says the company is increasing its production every year, “but not like lunatics”. Although international demand for avocados continues to grow, this growth has now started to slow, and Cullum is cautious not to overproduce. “Some people are going big guns,” he says. “Peru, South Africa, Colombia, all of the growing regions are growing like crazy – but individually within them you’ve got people planting huge plantations in one go, and others who are growing incrementally. There are new players in the market – let’s call them finance companies – that want to get into agriculture and are planting several hundred hectares of avocado in one go, but they don’t have any tradition.”

Going forward, it seems it will be key for producers not to get too carried away and to increase production at a sensible rate. Suppliers around the world all continue to get the message: “we want more avocados”, but Cullum suggests the balance is finer than some people might think. As the saying goes, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.