Ag Today October 3, 2017

UC Riverside to take avocado breeding program global

By David Downey, Riverside Press-Enterprise

You know California is the most prolific avocado producing state. You may not know that, for almost 70 years, UC Riverside has had a breeding program to complement the avocado growing industry.

“It’s been a well-kept secret,” said Mary Lu Arpaia, program director and a cooperative extension specialist in the university’s Botany and Plant Science Department.

Now UCR wants to elevate the program’s profile by luring private investment from throughout the world.

“The idea is to take the avocado breeding program global and find global partners,” Arpaia said.

Prospective partners are asked to commit money for 10 years, to fund development of varieties for the fresh fruit market, commercial oil production, sugar production and pharmaceuticals.

Not everyone is cheering the development.

Tim Spann, research program director for the California Avocado Commission, said that, while past program efforts were appreciated, “We’re not going to comment on the new plan. It is not being well received by our growers.” Spann did not elaborate.

With the plan, UCR is looking to greatly accelerate its research process.

Developing a new variety requires much patience. Arpaia said it takes 15 to 20 years to come up something viable for the marketplace. She hopes to shorten that to 10 years.

She has other goals in mind, too.

California avocados are marketed March to August. That means the zesty guacamole you eat on the Fourth of July is fashioned from California fruit. But your Super Bowl guacamole is a product of avocados from south of the border.

Researchers want a variety that can keep California fruit on grocery shelves year-round, Arpaia said.

In an era when droughts are more common and the climate is warming, she said UCR also is seeking an avocado that can grow on less water and thrive in California’s hot interior.

The industry is confined to cool coastal counties and mild, marine-influenced areas of southwest Riverside County. If a variety could grow on a wide scale in, say, California’s breadbasket, it would be a game changer.

“That’s one of my dreams, that we expand the industry into the San Joaquin Valley,” Arpaia said.

San Diego and Ventura counties dominate, accounting for 70 percent of avocado acreage. The other major producers are Riverside, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, according to the California Avocado Commission.

With the plea for global investment, researchers also have a global vision.

“We may find something that doesn’t do so well in California but does well somewhere else in the world,” Arpaia said.

Whatever UCR comes up with, it must pass the taste test.

“They have to be equal to Hass in eating quality, no doubt about it,” she said.

The Hass is California’s premier variety — the one you likely associate with the fruit. According to the commission, 95 percent of the state’s 50,856 acres are Hass trees.

With such domination, it’d be helpful to have a variety that extends the season, from a marketing standpoint, and buffers the industry against disease, Arpaia said.

“Scientifically, it’s always dangerous to have one variety,” she said.

Still, the Hass is so popular any variety faces an uphill climb.

“We certainly welcome the effort to create varieties that would extend the marketing season,” said Spann, of the commission. But getting growers to actually grow them has proven difficult.

“The growers are hesitant to plant a new variety, not knowing if there is going to be a market for it,” he said.

Indeed, Arpaia’s predecessor, Bob Bergh, spent years developing an avocado that would retain its green skin. That was because the industry worried customers wouldn’t embrace the Hass, which turns black when it ripens.

Arpaia said that led to release of the Gwen avocado — named after his wife — in the 1980s.

“It’s a lovely avocado,” she said.

Then customer preferences switched. And Gwen never grabbed a foothold in the market.

In the early 2000s, UCR produced the GEM, named after researcher Grey E. Martin.

It’s tolerant of heat and cold, Arpaia said. It holds fruit into September. And it is a slender tree.

As a result,  Spann said, growers can plant more trees and boost crop yields. Whereas there are typically 110 Hass trees per acre, three times as many GEMs can be planted, he said.

“That is receiving a little bit of traction,” Spann said.

Even so, the GEM is taking root slowly, he said, and only 400 to 500 acres have been planted thus far.