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Mexico's avocado picking 'holiday' leads to unsettled market

For the second week in a row, the picking of Mexican avocados has been curtailed, which promises to adversely affect U.S. avocado sales throughout the month of November.Catania-avocados-2

The Produce News spoke with four direct importers of Mexican avocados since reports surfaced that harvesting was halted on Monday, Oct. 29. On Nov. 5, two of those importers said harvesting had yet to resume this week, and it appeared that the earliest fruit would be picked again would be Wednesday, Nov. 7. All of those who were interviewed did not want their names or company names associated with their remarks because of the tense situation in Mexico.

"Our understanding is that a small group of dissident growers is leading this strike," said one of the importers. "It's my understanding that they are blocking the roads [in Michoacan] and not letting the fruit be harvested. But we really aren't sure what's going on. We've been told that harvest will begin no sooner than Wednesday (Nov. 7)."

Another U.S. importer said that there appeared to be some talks over the weekend among growers and others that did show signs of resolving the issue. This veteran importer said those blocking the roads did allow fruit that had been picked before the strike to move to the U.S. border on Monday, Nov. 5. While this importer took this as a hopeful sign, another was not certain it meant anything positive.

"We are talking about an insignificant amount of fruit that was allowed to be shipped," he said, adding that the fruit had been picked more than a week before and had to be shipped to avoid damage.

During the week of Oct. 29, U.S.-based suppliers of Mexican avocados continued to ship fruit to the marketplace from their own facilities as most importers work from more than a one-week inventory. Typically fruit is picked in Mexico one day, shipped to the United States the next and then sent from the Mexican border to U.S. forward distribution centers a day or two later.

The pipeline is said to have about 10-14 days of fruit. Consequently, the cessation of harvest in late October was not felt by buyers during the first week, but that soon will no longer be the case.

"Any ads scheduled for next week (Nov. 12) have had to be cancelled at great expense," said one importer, adding that early November is not typically a strong promotional period, so the impact isn't as widespread as it would be most any other time of the year. But it is significant nonetheless, he added.

This importer said the long-range impact is immeasurable.

"The last time they did this, it took about a year to regain the confidence of retailers," he said, noting that uncertainty is not what a retailer wants when setting up an ad schedule.

Just looking at the numbers, one importer said on Nov. 5, it would be impossible to get "back to normal before Thanksgiving, even if they start picking tomorrow." He reasoned that the pipeline would be empty once the fruit starts to flow again.

Initially, U.S. distributors will be focusing on bulk packs to get the fruit to the distribution centers and to retailer shelves as quickly as possible. The heavy preponderance of green fruit will almost surely result in slower sales at retail as research over the last four decades has clearly shown that ripe and soon-to-be ripe fruit is what drives sales.

So this distributor said that it would not be until the week of Nov. 26, at the very earliest, that his firm would have a full complement of sizes and bags available for retailers.

And then the question will be how long it will take retailers to come back to the fold and start promoting the fruit once again, trusting that there will not be another interruption in supplies.

Of course, the issue on the table is the field price. Avocados are priced on an almost daily basis, with the field price being the linchpin. One distributor produced numbers from the past two months showing that the f.o.b. market price for avocados -- and thus the field price -- has been slowly declining since early September. Supplies, anticipated supplies and anticipated demand drive that equation and the fall has often brought a decline in price as Mexico's volume from its new crop starts to increase and retail promotions decline.

Prior to the picking interruption, a half a dozen U.S. importer-shippers of Mexican avocados told The Produce News that they were anticipating a very strong avocado season for the next half year as Mexico's volume was reported to be heavier this season compared to last season.

Mexico's crop season runs from July 1 to June 30, with representatives of that industry traditionally touting the ability of its trees to create four blooms during the year. The first two produce supplies through the summer while the "regular" bloom, which produces the bulk of the volume, takes over as fall descends. Mexican growers are currently into that period, and, as such, the field price has dropped. That is not a situation that pleases growers.

U.S. distributors are expecting a much-higher f.o.b. price once shipments resume and supplies are limited.

One distributor said how quickly the price rises and how quickly it comes down again as the pipeline fills could well have an impact on avocado movement for months to come.

"The field price has to be at a level that allows promotion or this crop will be very hard to move," said the distributor.