Are avocados toast? California farmers bet on what we’ll be eating in 2050

September 26, 2019

For farmers planting harvests they hope will bear fruit in 25 years including avocado trees climate change must be reckoned with now

Chris Sayer pushed his style through avocado branches and comprehended a denuded extremity. It was stained black, as if someone had ladled tar over its bark. In February, the temperature had dropped below freezing for 3 hour, killing the limb. The thick leaves had shriveled and fallen away, exposing the green avocados, which then burned in the sunshine. Sayer estimated he’d lost one out of every 20 avocados on his farm in Ventura, only 50 miles north of Los Angeles, but he counts himself lucky.


” If that freeze was one degree colder, or one hour longer, we would have had major injury ,” he said.

Avocado trees start to die when the temperature falls below 28 F( -2C) or rises above 100 F( 38 F ). If the climate turns cold and clammy during the short period in the spring when the flowers bloom, bees won’t take to the air and fruits won’t develop. The trees also die if water operates dry, or if too many salts amass in the clay, or if a new pest starts chewing on its foliages.” All of which is quite possible in the next few decades, as the climate changes ,” Sayer said.

The weather had been strange lately, Sayer told me. In the past year, Californians have lived through a historic drought, a massive wildfire that blotted out the sun and a strangely warm wintertime followed by that unseasonable freeze. When I visited in April, his lemon trees were already loaded with ripe fruit- that is generally doesn’t happen until June.” Things are screwy ,” Sayer said.

From the vineyards of the north coast to the orange orchards of southern California, farmers like Sayer have been reeling from the weird weather.

” We are already agony the effects of climate change ,” said Russ Lester, who grows walnuts at Dixon Ridge Farms, east of Sacramento.” I can look out my window and watch trees that don’t have a leaf on them and others that are completely leafed out.

” The trees are totally confused .”

It might feel like we’re peering into the distant future when we hear that by 2050, temperatures may very well climb four degrees, seas could rise a foot and droughts and inundations will become more common. But for farmers planting trees they hope will bear fruit 25 years from now, that seemingly distant future has to be reckoned with now.

A lot of the country’s tree crops grow in California, which produces two-thirds of the fruits and nuts for the United States. The same is true of grapevines, which bear abundant fruit for about 25 years( they slow down after that, but can keep going for hundreds of years ). It’s in large portion because so many farmers are stimulating these long-term gambles on orchard crops that a recent scientific newspaper noted:” Agricultural production in California is highly sensitive to climate change .”

Sunburnt Sunburnt avocados hang from a tree. Photograph: Nathaneal Johnson/ Grist

Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, goes even further:” It’s a virtual certainty that California will get drier. I don’t think it’s a climate that’s conducive to orchard crops anymore .”

In other terms, for anyone trying to make money off long-lived harvests, climate change is already here. And yet new saplings are pushing out of the ground all over the state.

Three categories of risk: climate, marketplace and execution

If these farmers were planting an annual harvest, like cilantro, they’d be making a bet on the climate for the next 45 days. But they’re planting trees, which entails making a bet on the next 40 years.

After years of set it off, Sayer is about to place such a four-decade bet by planting a bunch of new avocado trees. There’s no way Sayer can see oncoming climate tragedy, if that’s what’s hurtling toward the land his family has worked for the past 130 years in Ventura. He can see just a little bit of what might be coming- as if he’s straining to glimpse signs of danger while blinkered. When I asked him how it felt, he said:” Like I’m about to cross a very busy road with my hood pulled over my head .”

Chris Chris Sayer on predicting the future of his farm:’ Like I’m about to cross a very busy road with my hood pulled over my head .’ Photograph: Nathaneal Johnson/ Grist

When Katherine Jarvis-Shean was a doctoral candidate researching the decline of cold wintertimes a few years back, she guessed more farmers should be freaking out.” I used to think,’ Why aren’t you guys more worried about this? It’s going to be the end of the world .'”

After all, many fruit and nut trees require a good winter cold to bear fruit. But after spending a few years as an extension agent for the University of California- working immediately with farmers and translating science into techniques they can apply on the land- she understands better. It comes down to this: farmers have a ton of concerns, and the climate is just one of them.

” If you decide what to plant based on climate, but then can’t stimulate the lease payment, that’s not sustainable ,” Jarvis-Shean said.

If you are worried about water running out in 15 years, you might think it’s a good idea to cut down half the state’s almond orchards- but if those almond trees are still putting money in your pockets, that wouldn’t make sense until the killer drought hits. That’s the crux of the matter for Sayer, and other farmers I interviewed. They’re concerned about the changing climate, but they always provided us with ingenious plans to adapt to bad weather. It’s much harder for them to adapt to an overdrawn bank account.

Sayer grows mostly lemons right now, but they’re not long for this world.” You can see these lemon trees are getting a little rangy appearing ,” Sayer said, gesturing toward a leafless branch.” “Its going to be” their last harvest, then they’ve got a date with the chipper .”

Sayer knows lemons. He knows how to coddle them in old age, how to nudge them to produce more, how to keep them alive when rainfalls fail, how to protect them from aphids, and snails, and scale insects, and the nematodes in the ground. But this land has provided a home to a citrus orchard for 70 years, and each year more pests amass to suck “peoples lives” from the trees. So Sayer needs to move on from lemons, and he’s settled on avocados.

From a climate perspective, the leather-skinned fruit are a risky choice. Avocado trees like their surrounds not too hot and not too cold, and they always need water. One study estimated that climate change would hurt California avocado trees so much that the state’s production could be cut in half by 2050.

As the sunshine burned off the marine layer of clouds over the orchard, Sayer patiently laid out the reasoning that resulted him to plant avocado trees. He did indicate that climate poses risks that are easy for outsiders to see- when you’re reading about historic droughts in the newspaper and driving past hectares of withered harvests, it seems crazy to plant orchards. But farmers often have to contend with other risks that outweigh the danger of bad weather. Sayers puts them into three categories: climate danger, marketplace risk and execution risk.

If he were only worried about climate risk, Sayer said, he’d plant prickly pear.” They would grow in any postapocalyptic hellscape you could imagine ,” he said. But who would buy them? Most Americans don’t put prickly pear on their shopping list. So there’s a huge market risk.

Then there’s execution risk: the chance that Sayer fuckings things up. If he didn’t have to worry about that, Sayer might follow his neighbor’s leading and start growing annual harvests. He pointed across the road from his farm, where orchards once stood, at a flat field of strawberries dotted with hustling pickers. There’s always an appetite for strawberries so they pose a low marketplace hazard. And because strawberries get planted each year, they’re not such a big gamble on the changing climate. If a freak storm kills everything growing in Ventura, for instance, Sayer’s neighbor risk losing that year’s strawberry crop while Sayer would lose a 30 -year avocado investment.

But the execution risk of switching to strawberries- figuring out how to grow them, buying the right equipment and learning how to sell them- is too high for him.” We’re talking about years of learning ,” Sayer said.” It would be like me deciding to go back to college to study medicine .” He’s 52, and not prepared to start fresh.

Sayer has one other option that would eliminate all the climate, marketplace, and execution risks: Pave his farmland and construct houses. When I visited in April, employees were constructing apartments on what used to be farmland at the end of his street. If more farmers start taking climate dangers severely, a upsurge of subdivisions could start sprawling across some of the most fertile farmland on the planet. But the thought of that saddens Sayer. He wants to farm.

After weighing all those risks, he decided to bet the farm on avocados. These trees are no climate savior- far from it. But Sayer been experimenting with them for decades and understands how they work. He knows he can sell avocados, because he’s tapped into a network that reserves places for the fruit in every grocery store, and turns sunburned avocados into frozen guacamole. Also, you might have noticed the market is strong: Americans are chowing down so much avocado tonnage in new, creative routes- smoothies, toast, ice cream, you name it- that intake has increased sevenfold since 2000.

‘Call me optimistic’

Orchards can endure weird weather brought on by climate change, but if they don’t get any water, the trees will die. In the past, California farmers have always survived droughts by sticking deeper and deeper straws into the ground to suck up groundwater. But since 2014, the state has had a law against depleting aquifers, and farmers soon won’t be able to take out more water than goes in.

That policy alarms growers, especially since they can no longer depend on snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mountains hold water- in the form of glaciers- through the colder months, then release it during the warmer months. But as the climate hots up, more of the precipitation that fell in California as snow will turn to rain. That entails more inundations in winter and more droughts in summer.

To adapt to this boom-and-bust cycle, a few farmers around California are letting swollen rivers spill into their orchards. If carried out on a large scale, this would slow down rushing flood water and let them percolate into aquifers.

After four years of experimentation in almond orchards, scientists have found that this inundation hasn’t hurt the trees. They’ve also identified virtually 700,000 acres under almond trees suitable for recharging groundwater, said Richard Waycott, president of the Almond Board of California. At the same time, growers continue to use less freshwater for irrigation and depict more water recycled from city drainpipes.

In another example of climate adaptation, farmers are developing a kind of hyper-local climate engineering, spraying clay dust over their trees to create shade and cool them down in unseasonably hot weather, according to David Zilberman, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. Elsewhere, scientists have planted a pistachio orchard where no self-respecting pistachio farmer would ever put a tree: in the middle of the southern California desert near Coachella.

Most pistachio trees grow 200 miles north, where colder wintertimes allow them to settle into their natural cycles. But in a few decades, that traditional pistachio land could have the climate of Coachella. It’s a type of time travel; the idea is to find a version of the future that already exists.

The pistachio trees aren’t at all happy in the desert:” It’s just terrible out there ,” said Craig Kallsen, another extension agent for the University of California.” It looked like someone had irradiated the place with toxic chemicals .”

All the same, a few pistachio trees are beginning to produce leaves. By growing this orchard in this analogue of the climate future, researchers like Kallsen can see which assortments stand up to heat, and then zero in on the genes that allow those trees to adapt. Using those genes, researchers hope to breed trees that can thrive in a hotter, drier world.

Sayer is also adapting by growing different varieties of avocados, but the most visible climate adaptation in the orchard was the knee-high carpet of grass and turnip stems we waded through as we stimulated our style amongst the trees.

” Back in the 1970 s, bare grime between the rows was considered clean and tidy ,” Sayer said.” If you had a blade of grass sticking out, oh human, that wasn’t good .”

“What’s ” What’s going on with your orchard? Is that a cover-up harvest ?” Hip-high cover crops. Photograph: Nathaneal Johnson/ Grist

Letting plants grow beneath the trees seemed like a squalid, lazy, weed-spreading hazard. When he and his father first began planting between the rows in 2005, it felt taboo. Other farmers would sidle up to them at the coffee shop and ask in an undercurrent:” What’s going on with your orchard? Is that a covering crop ?”

A cover crop protects the clay from heavy rains and helps turn it into a habitat for worms, beetles and thousands of microbes. As we walked through the dappled sunlight, the ground beneath my foot was yielding like a giant sponge.

Sayer has calculated that, since first planting the encompas crop, his lemon orchard can absorb 2.5 m gallons more water in a downpour.” Since every scenario I’ve seen involves water stress, better soil is going to put us in a better stance, because it holds and absorbs more rain ,” he said.

Lester, the Sacramento-area walnut grower, also plants cover crops. And he has an audacious justification for planting new trees: He hopes to reverse climate change.

Cover crops pull carbon from the air into the soil and- if we can figure it out- all of agriculture could become a giant carbon dioxide sponge. Lester powers his operation with solar panels and a walnut shell burning furnace( releasing carbon his walnut trees recently sucked out of the air ), building his farm carbon negative.

” Call me optimistic, but I believe if all farmers adopted healthy soils technology, agriculture can play a huge role in terminate, slowing down, maybe even reversing climate change ,” Lester said.

Not all farmers are as scientifically literate as Lester or Sayer; many shrug off climate change as only another transformation in the weather. But even people who readily accept the science of climate change continue to plant trees. Perhaps they are overly optimistic. Perhaps they are just human: it’s not in our nature to ignore threats right in front of our face so we can focus on those in the apparently far-off future.

After I’d expend the day with Sayer, his decision to plant more avocados made sense: It’s the choice that allows him to keep farming. He’s stimulating preparations based on the best climate projections he can get, while also setting himself up to react to the unexpected. He can see a path to profitability, though he lets that his vision into the future- in terms of both climate and weather forecasting- is severely restricted.

If you remember, he likened planting a new round of avocado trees to traversing a busy road with a hood over his head. There was a second part to that analogy:” At least I know which way to look for the oncoming traffic .”

Nathanael Johnson is a senior novelist at Grist and the author of two volumes, Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeon, the Discreet Charm of Snails& Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness, and All Natural *:* A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier. For more, click here, or find him on Twitter.

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