Have You Eaten Your Last Avocado?

Will the California drought signal the end of affordable guacamole for all?
Will the California drought signal the end of affordable guacamole for all? Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Do you love avocados? I mean, really love them? Because as much as you might think you love avocados — and maybe you are one of the people in this world who run pro-avocado Tumblrs; who have avocado tattoos; who write articles like “11 Avocado Struggles Only Avocado Lovers Will Truly Understand” with sentences like “It’s not an ingredient. It’s a lifestyle” — you probably don’t love avocados as much as the people of Fallbrook, California. An inland town of roughly 30,000 that’s a half-hour drive north of San Diego, Fallbrook is unofficially known as “the Avocado Capital of the World.” More than 80 percent of the avocados grown in the U.S. come from California, and a third of the avocados grown in California come from within 20 miles of Fallbrook. Every April, the town plays host to the Fallbrook Avocado Festival, a one-day event that draws between 70,000 and 100,000 visitors. The festival features a guacamole contest, with amateur and professional divisions, and an “Art of the Avocado” show, featuring avocado-themed objets d’art, with separate categories for 2-D art (i.e., paintings) and 3-D art (i.e., papier-mâché avocados). For the children, there’s the Avo 500, in which avocados, outfitted with tiny wheels, are raced down an inclined track. There’s the Little Miss and Little Mister Avocado Festival competition, in which kids are dressed up, pageant style, and the Best Decorated Avocado Contest, in which avocados are dressed up, pageant style. If there’s anything fun or entertaining or exciting to be done with an avocado in public, Fallbrook has thought of it and done it.

Charley Wolk is 78 years old and has lived in Fallbrook for more than 40 years, ever since he was stationed by the Marines at nearby Camp Pendleton. When he bought his first house for his family, he discovered that the property came with an avocado orchard and thought, Now what the hell am I going to do with that? He studied up on avocado farming and eventually became an avocado-grove manager; he’s since served as the chairman of the California Avocado Commission, and now runs a blog called Growing Avocados, on which he’s billed as “California’s foremost avocado expert.” Back in the late ’90s, when California was selling about 500 million pounds of avocados a year across the country, the U.S. opened its borders to Mexican-avocado imports post-NAFTA, and many California farmers panicked. They worried that this influx of imports would kill the domestic market. Wolk foresaw a different future. He told his colleagues: “You have to get your heads wrapped around a billion pounds of avocados in the U.S.” And he was right. “We did it,” Wolk says now. “We sold a billion pounds.” Mexican imports made it possible for East Coasters to get avocados year-round, not just during the California season, which lasts roughly from March to September. The avocado went from a grocery-aisle curiosity to a nationwide pantry staple. This — along with a nationally rising Hispanic population, a dogged and well-financed avocado-industry campaign, and a general American awakening to the glory of guacamole — led to an avocado boom that we are still in the midst of today. In 1999, Americans consumed 1.1 pounds per capita; by 2014, we consumed 5.8 pounds each.

Global demand for avocados has never been higher. Interest has never been more fervent. There’s only one thing that troubles Wolk: water. When I first met him boack in late February, he’d just returned from the monthly meeting of the California Avocado Commission, held in San Diego. On the agenda: short- and long-term strategy. The short-term-strategy meetings were straightforward: how to deal with skyrocketing demand. The long-term-strategy meetings, he explained, were mostly concerned with what to do about the drought.

California’s dry spell has lasted three years and now, barring some last-minute climatological miracle, will extend to a punishing fourth. Early in April, California governor Jerry Brown announced mandatory cutbacks on water usage, a first in the state’s history. The cutbacks exempted agricultural use, which accounts for 80 percent of California’s human water consumption — an exemption due in part to the fact that the agricultural sector already has a system of restrictions and allotments in place. In California, farmers pay dearly for water — or, more precisely, they pay for the delivery of water — and water is getting very, very expensive. “The avocado’s native environment is tropical,” Wolk says to me in his office, which overlooks his own modest avocado grove, “and we’re growing them in a desert.” It takes 72 gallons of water to grow a pound of avocados, compared to, for instance, nine gallons to grow a pound of tomatoes. What’s more troubling is that “the issue with water used to be cost,” Wolk says. “Now it’s availability.” Ken Melban, the director of issues management for the California Avocado Commission, doesn’t see imminent trouble, “but a year from now, if we don’t have significant rain or snowfall, we’ll have to revisit that. Maybe sooner. All bets are off if this continues and continues. We’re living in anxious times here in California.” The problem is hardly limited to his area of expertise — “Ninety-eight percent of California is in a drought condition,” as Melban points out, “so the ramifications are much broader than whether someone can get an avocado in New York City” — but still, if you want to think through what climate change might mean for your daily life, the fate of the avocado is a good way to start.

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Avocados are having a moment, in the way that, in the ascendant, hashtag-friendly foodie culture of the early-21st century, certain food items can, like pop stars or catchphrases or hem lengths or hairstyles, have a moment. The avocado has emerged unexpectedly as the J. K. Simmons of the fruit basket: admiringly versatile, long under­appreciated, suddenly celebrated, and unexpectedly on the verge of being priced way out of your budget. This is a strange and surprising twist in the long history of the avocado, which is itself a strange and surprising fruit.

Surprise No. 1: It’s a fruit.

Technically, it’s a berry. Yet unlike any other berry you can think of, it’s not sweet or inviting to eat while still on the branch. The name avocado comes from the Aztec word ahuacatl, which means “testicle,” so named because avocados typically grow in pairs and hang heavy on the tree. Spanish conquistadors came to call them aguacate, a name that was further bastardized by English speakers (a young George Washington wrote in 1751 of the popularity of “agovago pears” in Barbados); once exported back to Spain, they became known as abogado, a word that meant “advocate” or “lawyer.” The avocado fruit became a staple in Central and South America but didn’t land in California until the 1850s, when an avocado tree was imported from Nicaragua by a private citizen as a botanical curiosity.

From the beginning, branding was an issue. In English-speaking North America, avocados were known by the less-than-enticing name “alligator pears.” A 1927 statement from the California Avocado Growers’ Exchange laments: “That the avocado, an exalted member of the laurel family, should be called an alligator pear is beyond all understanding.” A subsequent campaign by horticulturalists and growers championed the name avocado, yet still, the fruit remained a tough sell for Americans. Avocados are inedible on the tree and take several days to ripen after being picked, so bins of hard, green, underripe avocados often befuddled shoppers at the grocery. And once eaten, the fruit has a flavor that’s hard to pin down. The question “How does an avocado taste?” posted to Yahoo Answers elicits “smooth, buttery” and “best taste in the world” but also “evil unpleasant odor” and “soft, uncooked squash or something” — reactions that are a testament, perhaps, to the persistent confusion as to exactly how, and when, they should be eaten.

The avocado pit, meanwhile, is a large, bitter, and slightly toxic choking hazard; ground-up avocado seed was once used in a South American folk recipe for rat poison. The avocado’s evolutionary heyday was way back in the Cenozoic Era, when the mighty megafauna — ground sloths and mammoths and so-called gompotheres — roamed the wilds of North America. The giant mammals that were able to swallow the fruit whole, then shit the massive seed out elsewhere — the system by which most fruit propagates — went extinct about 13,000 years ago. Avocados only persisted thanks to mismatched evolutionary partners like rodents, which are so-called pulp thieves: animals that would hoard avocados to eat the pulp later, inadvertently dropping the discarded pit elsewhere. (From an evolutionary standpoint, humans are the ultimate pulp thieves.)

Yet somehow here we are, in New York City, roughly 13,000 years later, putting avocados on everything in sight: sliding them into sandwiches and slicing them over salads; frying them; searing them; serving them on sushi (the Japanese did not invent this; think of the name California roll); pestling them theatrically into ever-more-complex variants of guacamole; or lovingly spreading our own homemade mashed lawyer-testicles on toast, then sprinkling it with pepper flakes and curry oil, hashtagging it #avocadoobsession, and posting a photo of the whole thing on Instagram. If you’re Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback, you eat avocado ice cream whipped up under the guidance of your personal trainer, Alex. If you’re everyone else, you eat avocados — over 100 million pounds’ worth, at last estimate — in the form of guacamole, on Super Bowl Sunday, while watching Tom Brady. Avocado toast alone has become a robust subgenre of the overall craze, inspiring not only articles like “Five Must-Try Avocado Toasts at Hot New York Restaurants” but also articles like “Avocado Toast: The Most Annoying Food on Instagram.”

This sudden popularity, in part, is because the avocado, which once looked to our eye like a reptilian egg, is aesthetically well suited to the Instagram age — especially when smeared on something else, such as toast or Kim Kardashian’s face (as it has been, as a beauty aid). Avocados have also come to magically embody a number of contradictory qualities that are especially appealing right now. They’re an indulgence that’s still a superfood. They’re a fruit that’s full of fat. (But the good kind of fat!) Avocados can represent a particularly New York-ish, in-the-know exclusivity (Check out this photo of the avo-toast I ate this morning at the Butcher’s Daughter, which in case you didn’t know is way better than Cafe Gitane’s), but they can also represent a particularly all-American, of-the-people inclusivity (Check out this photo of my seven-layer guacamole!!!). From such humble origins, the avocado has achieved a cultural cachet that goes far beyond its consumption. When Chipotle announced, in 2014, that the threat of rising avocado prices owing to projected avocado scarcity might cause the company to abandon guacamole temporarily (the chain goes through 97,000 pounds of avocados a day), the internet loosed a collective, strangulated cry of avocado-tinged despair, the likes of which has not, as yet, greeted the drought-fueled advent of the $20 jar of organic-almond butter now found at your local health-food store.

January through April is, traditionally, the wet season in California, and during a two-hour drive south from Los Angeles to Fallbrook in February, the hills looked reassuringly verdant — green enough, at least, to remind you of what exactly much of Southern California is: a natural desert irrigated by man into a sense of artificial lushness. Talk of the drought, however, hovered like an ambient anxiety, lurking just under every conversation. Billboards on the highway pleaded with drivers to Save Our Water, while radio ads listed water-saving tips. A public-radio station, hosting a pledge drive, hyped a documentary called Look Up!, which details the ways in which the drought and climate change and “chemtrails” are all by-products of secret government experiments on the environment.

In Charley Wolk’s office, he shows me a report from the local water board; on the front page is a photo of a man attempting to measure the snowpack in the Sierra Mountains. All around the man: patches of ground with no snow. Normally, at this time of year, there would be 10 or 12 feet of snow, which, in spring, turns to much-needed water. Wolk tosses the report back on his desk and grimaced. “Back in ’91 — well, they called it the March Miracle,” he says. “The growers were told we were going to get cut back 30 percent. With avocado trees, we can do what you call stumping” — a process, he explains, by which you basically cut off all the branches of a tree and let it live for one season without water. The next year, if you resume watering, new branches, and fruit, will grow. But stumping’s only a stopgap solution. If you stump 30 percent of your grove for one year, and the rationing continues to the next season, you have to stump a different 30 percent, and so on — until eventually you run out of grove to stump. In 1991, many California farmers stumped their trees, then got an unexpected reprieve. “March came and flooded everything,” Wolk says. “The quantity problem went away. It not only rained down here but it snowed in the Sierras — there was water all over the place.”

This March, however, there was no miracle. Instead, there was a report released by a group of Stanford scientists titled “Anthropogenic Warming Has Increased Drought Risk in California.” The study’s lead author argues that human factors have led to a climatological situation in the state that “will result in more frequent occurrences of high temperatures and low precipitation that will lead to increased severe drought conditions.” The report points out that there were 14 drought years in the 98 years between 1896 and 1994, and there have been six drought years in the 19 years between 1995 and 2014. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, currently, 44 percent of California is classified as being in “exceptional drought,” the worst classification. “What hits home the most for me,” says Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the center, “is that California has missed out on a full year’s worth of precipitation over each of the last three years. So that means going into this fourth year, even if you get normal precipitation, or even if you get 150 percent of normal, you still have this deficit that’s accumulated. That doesn’t go away with one, two, three, four precipitation events.”

Last year was also the warmest year in California’s recorded history. The trouble with exceptionally warm weather is that it exacerbates not only the drought but the effects of the drought. You use more water, even as you have less of it. For a while, for farmers, this simply meant that water prices kept rising. When Wolk started farming avocados four decades ago, water cost about $72 per acre-foot of water (roughly 326,000 gallons). Now in some areas it costs about $1,500 per acre-foot. I ask Wolk about the potential of desalination, the process by which seawater could be converted to freshwater and used for agriculture. He wasn’t optimistic. “The price I heard on that is $2,600 an acre-foot. I just don’t see how you can make that work.”

California is not our only source of avocados. In fact, imports, primarily from Mexico and Chile, now make up 85 percent of the avocados consumed in the U.S. year-round. But those countries have avocado issues of their own. In 1990, Chile had fewer than 8,000 acres of avocado trees; now it has more than 60,000 acres, and large avocado growers are draining the country’s ground­water and rivers faster than they can replenish themselves. In Mexico, where avocado farms are so lucrative that avocados are referred to as oro verde, or “green gold,” the problems are even more troubling. Seventy-two percent of the avocado plantations in Mexico are located in the state of Michoacán, and much of the industry there is controlled or influenced by the Caballeros Templarios drug cartel. The extent of the money laundering, extortion, and murder around avocados in Michoacán led one writer to equate avocados to Africa’s blood diamonds, while others have adopted the phrase “blood guacamole,” which might sour the mood around the chips at your next Super Bowl party.

When Chipotle made its dire public announcement about abandoning guacamole, the anxiety it produced felt discomfitingly familiar. After all, it is the latest in a long line of fears about climate-fueled scarcity: a possible coffee crisis in Africa and Central America, a possible chocolate crisis in West Africa, an actual climate-and-drug-cartel-fueled lime crisis in Mexico last year, and the ongoing quinoa crisis in Bolivia. These recurring scares speak in part to an alarming new global agricultural outlook, and in part to our collective redefinition of “crisis” to mean an inability to get any exotic food easily and affordably from any far-flung corner of the Earth. (All at the cost of carbon emissions — for example, the shortest trip for coffee beans to the continental U.S. is about 1,000 miles.) Who can blame us? It’s what we’re accustomed to. Fifteen years ago, many of us had never heard of quinoa, and struggled to pronounce it. Now it’s a staple of the modern urban diet — and, as a result, it’s become so popular and expensive that the people who farm it can no longer afford to eat it.

If the most dire climate predictions for California prove prescient — those that foresee, for example, a 30-, 40-, even a 100-year drought — the avocado is not the agricultural product most likely to disappear from the state. (That would be dairy, which is water-intensive and not geographically dependent.) It’s not the food most likely to be permanently priced out of your diet. (That would be almonds — 99 percent of which come from California, and the wholesale price of which has more than tripled since 2001.) But if you draw a Venn diagram with “West Coast drought-affected agriculture” in one circle and “East Coast foodie-fueled manias” in the other, smack-dab in the ovoid intersection of these circles would sit the avocado. And so, having only just recently become a tattoo-worthy symbol of foodie obsessiveness, the avocado could become the symbol of a pre-climate-change era, when we could reasonably expect anything, from anywhere, at any time, to appear on our dinner plate. “Once it hits Chipotle, people think, Wow, we better do something about this climate-change thing,” says Eric Holthaus, a climatologist who writes for Slate. “You can see all these satellite photos of melting Arctic ice, and read reports about changes in the jet stream, but when it starts hitting Chipotle, that’s when people pay attention.”

Wolk’s bio on his blog explains that “Charley has helped growers through fires, freezes, droughts, heat waves, pests, water restrictions and quarantines … he’s seen it all and done it all.” I asked him whether he’s started advising his clients to think of the current drought not as a temporary setback that has to be outlasted but as a new normal to be reckoned with. “It’s right at the edge of that,” he said. “But getting past that point psychologically is very difficult. People don’t want to face the problem.” As he points out, he still gets dozens of inquiries from people who want to move to California and farm avocados, inspired by a newfound love of the fruit and news of a boom so lucrative that investment-fund managers started buying up avocado groves.

The avocado farmers already in California are searching for new, more efficient ways to grow avocados, and looking to develop new, heartier, more drought-resistant strains of avocado to grow. Eventually, avocados may simply become too expensive to grow profitably, in which case farmers will be forced to switch to something else, like grapes. Either way, you, the end user, are increasingly unlikely to find avocados sliced up as a freebie giveaway at a restaurant, next to the omelet.

A 2014 study from the University of Arizona predicted a 28 percent increase in avocado prices as a result of the drought — an increase owed in part to the fact that, as the study’s author explains, “people are the least price-sensitive when it comes to those items, and they’re more willing to pay what it takes to get them.” Travis Swikard, a San Diego-raised former surfer and the head chef at Boulud Sud, remembers picking avocados off the tree as a kid in his grandmother’s backyard. Now the avocado, as an ingredient, can be proudly featured at a restaurant like Boulud Sud. “It used to be a cheap ingredient,” Swikard says. “Now it’s more expensive, but you can charge for it. Because people want it.” Avocados won’t disappear; they’ll just become a luxury item. And the alligator pear will complete its unlikely journey from evolutionary afterthought to Instagram starlet to culinary status symbol.

“ ‘Let me have a dozen squabs and a large capon,’ said a man yesterday to his poultry­man in Washington Market. ‘London is buying our securities, and stocks are booming again … Asparagus will be the most popular vegetable in the market through the present week.’ ” This is an excerpt from an article headlined “Asparagus Has a Big Boom!,” which appeared in the New York Times on May 12, 1895. The economy was rosy. The future looked bright. So everyone was indulging in asparagus, the exotic delicacy of the day. In a different era, they may have run out and gotten asparagus tattoos. Since Adam bit into the apple, food has always been about more than sustenance; it’s an outward emblem of our moral, economic — and now global and climatological — well-being.

As for avocados, back in 1895, the article reports: “A fruit … made its appearance last week in the fancy fruit stores. It is the alligator, or Avocado, pear, very highly esteemed by some persons.” One hundred and twenty years later, Nicholas Morgenstern, proprietor of Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream parlor and the upscale coffee shop El Rey, stands over a plate of avocado-ice-cream toast that he’s been serving lately in his restaurant, and wonders if the avocado bubble has finally popped. He eyes his creation warily. (The toast, it should be said, is delicious, once you get past the fact that you’re eating ice cream for breakfast.) “Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m hoping it will kill the avocado-toast craze. Because it will have jumped the shark.” He pauses, then adds: “I think.” As for the future of avocados, he says, “It’s not even that complicated. The prices will get out of control.”

Morgenstern has seen this happen before — for example, with pine nuts. He once served a signature salt-and-pepper pine-nut cookie, but when pine-nut prices went way up, he tried to swap in peanuts instead. But people didn’t want peanuts. They wanted pine nuts. So he embraced the obvious solution: “We’re going to serve the pine-nut cookie and raise the price.” And people bought the cookie. He sees a similar future for avocados. “As long as people want it, they’ll figure out how to grow it, and then people will just want it more,” he says. “You’ll go to the supermarket and an avocado is, like, six bucks. And you’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to have that thing.’ ”

*This article appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Have You Eaten Your Last Avocado?