There's an area in Irvine that's a bit of a mystery to most. If you drive on Jeffrey Road as far northeast as possible, the road is restricted beyond Portola. However, if you look up into the hillside, you'll see them: avocado trees. This quickly explains why the neighborhood's name is Orchard Hills--it's not some Bren-approved stab at California Romanticism, but an actual habitation name.
Peter Changala of the Irvine Co. has an office off this road. He is a part of the Irvine Valencia Growers, one of the last remaining agricultural cooperatives in Orange County, in a land once defined by them. It makes the growing decisions regarding the avocado orchard. Remember the Santiago Canyon fires in 2007? He watched in horror as trees went up in flames and embers hit his face.
We now mostly know the Irvine Ranch for the various cities, Stepford housing tracts and shopping plazas it builds, but it still cultivates the "Ranch" part of its name as part of its heritage. The land has been used to grow crops and raise cattle since the days of the Californios, but it wasn't until the 1960s that agriculture became large-scale, ironically at the same time when the custodians of the ranch began carving up their holdings to develop Newport Beach and create Irvine. Primary crops were Valencia oranges and lemons through the 1990s, but the cost of water caused them to shift the focus away from citrus and toward avocado. With 1,100 acres and temperate climates, the Ranch is one of the top five avocado cultivators in the United States.
Haas avocados are naturally protected from pests by their thick outer skin, similar to the banana. Both are considered climacteric, maturing on a tree but ripening once picked. Avocados can remain on the tree for six to nine months before they require harvesting. If picked sooner, they are smaller and possess a lower level of monounsaturated oil, a.k.a. the "good" kind of fat. Today, ripening rooms speed up the process, making them ready for sale more quickly.
Mexico--the birthplace of the avocado--remains its largest producer, but its avocados weren't imported into the U.S. until the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 due to sanitation restrictions in the form of fruit flies and their crop-destroying abilities. Since countries such as Chile and Mexico can grow avocados for less, "the consistent importing, making them accessible," contributes to one of three reasons Peter believes demand is high. Marketing efforts and a prominent Latino population also encourage its usage in cooking.
Down the road, A.G. Kawamura is a founding partner of Orange County Produce, originally known as Western Marketing Co. He is also the former Secretary of Agriculture for California, having served under Arnold Schwarzenegger. Together, they advocated for the agriculture industry, creating programs and working on fixing the water systems. Raised in Orange County, he remembers growing up in the 1960s and seeing sugar beet fields off Dyer in Costa Mesa. He mentions that, at 60 years young, Orange County Produce is "Irvine Ranch's oldest active tenant. We have a great relationship with them."
Irvine has ideal growing conditions for cultivating avocados: predictable sunny weather, rich soil and proper drainage. This holds true for some of its other bountiful crops, like strawberries and green beans, enabling them to generate large amounts of produce for both retail and wholesale under the Orange County Harvest label. To put this in perspective, in a season, it estimates 700 pounds of avocados per week are sold to places including wholesaler L.A. Specialty and grocer Whole Foods Market. In the near future, Orange County Produce will also provide bell peppers and jalapeños to local Chipotle chains.
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A third-generation grower and shipper, Kawamura is a strong supporter of dynamic agriculture, thinking in terms of a "food shed" region, in which consumers would find what they need within the area, without importing. It's known as permaculture.
"Marrying a sustainable agricultural system with renewable water and energy" is important, Kawamura says, and he knows it can be done. In fact, the company submitted a bid (which was approved) to the Orange County Great Park, discussing 21st-century agriculture. Details include a culinary institute, as well as a farming-mentoring facility.
Participating in local farmers markets began approximately three years ago and accounts for a small percentage of total sales, but it is happy to provide the service. Being a regional, local producer has its advantages, like the ability to deliver produce so fresh it was harvested that day. Fourth-generation Kawamuras are also involved in the family business, whether managing the office or explaining the produce to a customer. "We want people to consciously use their dollar," A.G. explains. The family is even taking advantage of small, vacant lots, experimenting with new crops and creating what he likes to call an "edible landscape." What began as a family business has remained one that utilizes sustainable farming as a way for both the land and community to prosper.
Orange County Produce, LLC, attends multiple farmers markets throughout Orange County. For a complete listing, please click here. It is located at 11405 Jeffrey Rd., Irvine, (949) 451-0880; www.ocproduce.com.