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Posts Tagged ‘avocados’

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In August and early September, the stars of Bee Heaven Farm are the shiny green Donnie avocados grown to almost football size. Stroll through the grove even this late in summer and you’ll see many, both on the branches and littering the ground below.

Summertime is a good time to visit fruit growers in Redland, because as you tour their groves, they’ll pick a fruit and let you taste it. So when the newest member of the Extension office, Tropical Fruit Agent Jeff Wasielewski, came to visit, that’s exactly what farmer Margie Pikarsky did. She took him for a walk around her farm, where they paused at different fruit trees, tasted a couple things along the way, and shared stories about the trees’ health and growth. “Visiting smart, forward-thinking growers like Margie is important for me as a learning tool and not just a social visit,” he said. (The UF/Miami-Dade County Extension office shares the latest agriculture information from University of Florida’s researchers with farmers and gardeners in the county. Some of the ways are through workshops, educational materials, field consulatations, and their web site.)

Tropical Fruit Agent Jeff Wasielewski and Margie Pikarsky open up an avocado.

Tropical Fruit Agent Jeff Wasielewski and Margie Pikarsky open up an avocado.

Margie’s pride and joy is the grove of over 90 avocado trees, which she herself planted back in 1996. She and Wasielewski stopped at one tree where she picked up a windfall avocado and handed it to him. It looked ready to eat, so he pulled pruning snips from a case on his belt, and cut open the fruit.

He’s a tall, easy going man with a ready smile and 18 years of tropical fruit experience, and 21 years of horticulture in South Florida. You might already know him from lectures, articles and videos he made for Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, where he was the Educational Outreach Specialist. He’s developed keen senses and loads of experience when it comes to tropical fruit and plants. All it took was one taste and he said the avocado was a day away from being perfectly ripe.

Further down the row of trees, he noticed a dead branch, which Margie snapped off. “Be careful,” he warned. “A dead branch like that can attract other beetles now suspected of carrying laurel wilt.” Margie explained that she removes dead branches from the trees as soon as she finds them, and trims the trees every year. So far her grove looks healthy, but laurel wilt disease remains a lurking concern.

Laurel wilt is a dangerous avocado disease that appeared in Miami-Dade County a few years ago. It is spread by the red bay ambrosia beetle, which is tinier than a grain of rice. Wasielewski  explained that the beetle burrows into healthy avocados and other trees in the laurel family. “It cultivates a fungus that eventually kills the tree branch by branch by disrupting its vascular system. Signs of the disease are quick branch dieback or tiny holes and sawdust towers where the beetles enter the tree. The tree will die very quickly if infected. Commercial growers are advised to quickly and completely remove the tree and its roots. The removed tree should be burned in place, out of fear of spreading infested wood to other groves and trees. Root removal is necessary because the disease may spread from tree to tree through root grafts,” he told me in an email.

So far there have been over 2000 trees removed due to laurel wilt in commercial groves in Redland, and  growers are worried, and anxious for a cure. When the first tree in a large commercial grove was suspected of having the disease, Extension held a standing room only meeting for growers, informing them of the threat. They continue to provide updated information on their website and with occasional meetings. (Yes, backyard trees in town are also at risk. Find info for homeowners at Save The Guac web site.)

Jeff and Margie

Jeff and Margie

As Tropical Fruit Agent, one of Wasielewski’s goals is to inform avocado growers of new research on combating laurel wilt. “It’s important that I am on the cutting edge of what is going on in the tropical fruit world,” he said. University of Florida has done tests, and complied a list of pesticides that will kill the ambrosia beetle. Unfortunately, none of them can be used in an organic grove. Local organic growers are pressuring the scientists to test substances approved for use in organic production.

Margie expressed her frustration to Wasielewski at the current lack of effective organic options. He said he would keep her informed as to new research into alternative treatments. “I want growers to have options as far as doing things in an environmentally friendly way. I let them know their options and the value of each option. Growers are then free to make a choice on how they want to proceed, but only if they are armed with new knowledge and multiple options,” he told me in an email.

For now, it’s wait and see how bad laurel wilt gets in Redland, and how quickly research can come up with solutions that all growers can use. Wasielewski is an important addition to the Extension office during a critical time for tropical fruit growers.

As for Bee Heaven Farm, over the years Margie has accumulated a wide variety of other tropical fruit trees, tucked away here and there among the vegetable beds. Sapodilla, carambola, longan, mango, and bananas are planted in various spots on her five acre farm. If her avocado trees have to go, she’ll plant different fruit trees and more vegetables, she once told me. But until then, she and other growers will put up a fight to save their groves.

Got a question about tropical fruit? Contact Jeff Wasielewski at 305-248-3311, ext. 227 or email at jwasielewski@ufl.edu .

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The big barn in the back of Bee Heaven Farm is where a lot of things happen. In the winter, a packing line for CSA shares is set up in its large open space.  Then in summer a slightly different packing line is set up to sort and box organic  avocados from the Bee Heaven grove.

Trees in the Bee Heaven grove are loaded with fruit.

Trees in the Bee Heaven grove are loaded with fruit.

Periodically through the summer, Farmer Margie delivers pallets of freshly-harvested large green Donnies and red-skinned Hardees directly to the Whole Foods Market Florida warehouse in Pompano Beach, where they are distributed to area stores the very next day.

Cleaning and grading avocados.

Cleaning and grading avocados.

Because the barn is a certified organic packing house, from summer through fall, local grower Murray Bass backs in trailer loads of his organic avocados to pack there. His crew cleans, sorts and boxes avocados all day long.

Filling boxes to be sold under Uncle Matt's brand.

Filling boxes to be sold under Uncle Matt’s brand.

Then pallet loads of his avocados are taken over to the Florida City State Farmers Market Facility, where they are kept in a large drive-up cooler. Big rigs from Publix and Whole Foods can back in easily to the loading docks to pick up their orders. Look for Murray’s avocados sold under the Uncle Matt’s brand!

Unloading pallets of Uncle Matt's avocados at the Florida City market.

Unloading pallets of Uncle Matt’s avocados at the Florida City market.

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Seen at Whole Foods stores recently….

The store in South Beach is proud to support local growers.

The Aventura market had local, organic avocados from Homestead Organic Farms.

(Homestead Organic Farms is also the area’s largest organic green bean grower, and you will get their green beans in your CSA share come November.)

Local avocados from Homestead Organic Farms, next to grape tomatoes from Lady Moon Farms (which are not local, not this time of year).

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Avocado grove getting trimmed.

The avocado season is over at Bee Heaven Farm. The last of the big, plump Donnie avocados got picked weeks ago. The lull between picking fruit and and blooming season (usually around January) brings off-season maintenance. Almost every year the tree trimmer comes to cut back all the avocado trees. Call it their summertime haircut, with a little off the sides and top.

Trimming happens for practical reasons. Farmer Margie Pikarsky explained, “You don’t need a tall tree to produce fruit, and you don’t get a proportionally greater harvest just because it’s tall. Harvesting a tall tree is way more labor-intensive and requires special equipment — at minimum a tall ladder, at best a cherry picker.” Avocados are picked by hand, and Margie’s pickers either climb the tree or go up an orchard ladder, which has a tripod-like leg to keep it standing up by itself. Margie added that “a shorter tree (about 15 feet) is MUCH more hurricane resistant.”

A little off the sides.

When you have a grove of 90-some trees, you need to bring in some serious cutting power. The man who trims trees showed up early one morning with a very impressive machine. Imagine a bobcat whose operator not only drives the machine but also controls an articulated arm mounted at the top. This arm can reach up or down, swing around from side to side, or turn from horizontal to vertical. At the business end of this arm is a revolving metal piece, and three spinning circular saw blades are attached to it. Those revolving blades cut through branches smoothly and easily. The whole rig looks like something Freddy Scissorhands dreamed up.

And a little off the top.

The tree trimmer drove his cutting machine up and down the shaggy rows of the avocado grove. He maneuvered the arm to first trim the sides of the rows, and then made a final pass to level the tops. Branches fell onto the safety cage of the bobcat and onto the ground. Scraggly trees transformed into huge boxy hedges, like something you might find in a giant’s formal garden.

Sadie (under tree) and Pedro (with pitchfork) gather cut branches.

Once the tree trimmer was done, there was a mess to clean up. Pedro used a pitchfork to grab and pull out cut branches that had snagged in trees. Sadie went after branches lying underneath. They were tossed on the grass in between the rows. Then Margie came with the bush hog to chew up fallen branches and turn them into coarse mulch. (A bush hog is a tractor attachment that looks and works like a large, heavy duty mower.) Margie made a few passes up and down each row, and gestured for me to step aside, but I stood my ground, taking pictures. I quickly realized that it wasn’t a good idea for me to stand off to the side as the bush hog went by. Twice I got hit by bits of flying branches, once on the foot and once on the arm. No blood lost, just a moment of surprise. (I think Margie was trying to warn me not to lose a camera — or an eye.) Lesson learned: don’t stand too close to a working brush hog!

Margie mulches branches with the brush hog.

What looks like a severe trimming is not bad for the tree. In fact, trimming keeps trees healthy and vigorous. They will grow new branches and look less and less boxy as the months go by. “Avocados flower and fruit on new growth, so trimming after harvest is finished gives them time for a couple of new growth flushes before blooming begins, thus increasing chances of a good yield next season,” Margie explained. More new growth means more fruit and more deliciousness in summer!

After the trim.

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In front of the store in Winter Park.

Last week I was up in Sanford visiting with friends Kattia, Chris and Holden. Kattia knows I’m a big fan of Whole Foods, and took me to visit the store at Winter Park.

Hardees in front and Donnies on the left.

The first thing I saw when I walked in through the front door was a heap of Florida avocados. They looked suspiciously familiar. I peered closer and saw the sign: Bee Heaven Farm, Homestead FL. “Kattia, look! Margie’s avocados!” I shouted, astonished by the presence of Redland raised Hardee and Donnie avocados. (One Hardee was starting to ripen and showed dark red streaks. It will turn burgundy red when it is completely ripe.)

Hardee avocados from Bee Heaven Farm.

The fruits were right under a spotlight and their green skins glowed in the light. They made the California Haas avocados stacked behind them look dark, drab and unremarkable by comparison. I pulled out my camera to take a picture. Kattia and her son Holden made theselves scarce over by the bulk bins, and the employee stacking produce looked at me with curiosity.

Massive mamey from Health and Happiness Farm.

I then noticed mamey stacked nearby, and looked more closely. The sign said Health and Happiness Farm, Homestead FL. “Kattia, look! Sal’s mamey is here too!” Next to the mamey were sapodillas from Kopali Organics, also from Homestead. I looked around and didn’t see my friends. Gee, you just can’t take me anywhere… But Redland fruit travels everywhere!

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Packing avocados

Organic avocado grower Murry Bass of Wyndham Organics was packing avocados in the Bee Heaven Farm barn for most of the summer. His fruit was selling under the Uncle Matt’s brand at Whole Foods. Although Murray is done packing his avo’s, there are still some late varieties getting picked and coming to stores.

I made this little story to show you how the fruit gets from the tree to the store. Click on the image to see the full sized comic page. (I made the comic last summer, but the process is pretty much the same from year to year.)

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Avocado bliss

Seen at the the Pinecrest Whole Foods on Friday.

The time has come to pick avocados. Last week Farmer Margie mustered her crew of mostly volunteers and they went through the grove to gather the first of the season. Thirty bushels of certified organic Donnie avocados went straight to the area Whole Foods warehouse, and I’m told that the fruit just flew out of the stores. This week Margie’s crew picked again, and she took 30 more bushels to the WF warehouse on Thursday. I found her Donnie avocados at the Pinecrest Market on Friday afternoon. They are selling for $3.49 each, ouch! But even at that price, there may not be many left today.

But all is not lost. I’ve learned about Number Two fruit. Those are avocados that have scuff marks on their skins, superficial blemishes that that are bigger than a certain allowed size.  The fruit rubbed against a branch while it was maturing and it made for a dark mark. Stores don’t like blemished fruit, but they are just as good.

Last week I bought a half bushel of Number Twos to re-sell to friends and co-workers for $2.50 each. Like their pristine brethren that went to WF, these avocados sold very fast. This week I sprang for a full bushel of Twos. People wanted more, or saw they missed out and were calling me with orders.

This dramatic scuff mark is cosmetic, doesn't affect the flesh inside. Whole Foods doesn't want this fruit, but I do!

Local fruit makes people happy! Case in point, I took a half bushel of avocados to my doctor’s office. She is a holistic practitioner, and she and her hard working staff and patients know that avocados are good for you. I staggered in with the heavy box of fruit, set it on the floor, and everybody pounced. My doctor did the most interesting thing — she cradled a large green avocado to herself, stroked it with her hand, and giggled with delight. Other staffers were smiling as they sorted through the box. One woman picked out a fruit, then another, then went off with three avocados clutched to her chest. Altogether a dozen avocados found new homes so quickly I felt almost giddy.

I saw that grin, heard that giggle, and watched people pet and stroke the smooth, green shiny skinned avocados over and over on Thursday and Friday as I made my deliveries. And once you’ve actually eaten a Donnie from Bee Heaven, that’s it, you’re hooked on the creamy, nutty flavor. Last week a friend got one avocado, then ask me for four more this week. “Are you sure,” I asked. “Oh yes,” was her answer, said with a smile and sigh of bliss. “I want them. They’re buttery.”

Another thing I heard often is, “I’m going to eat the whole avocado for lunch.” Easy to say now, when the fruit is only about a pound and a half in size. Wait a few weeks when they have increased to three pounds — or more. Last summer a friend claimed that he could eat a whole three pound avocado by himself in one sitting. “That’s a pretty big avocado. I can only eat half or less at one time,” I cautioned. My friend boasted, “I’m a big guy, and I have a big stomach. I can eat it.” He took the avocado home and that was the last I heard of it. It’s quite possible that a three pound avocado defeated a 200 pound man.

So, I get a little crazed this time of year, phoning people — “Hey, I got some green crack*, let me know how many you want” — and driving around town with a bushel of avocados in my car. I do it because Margie’s fruit makes people happy, and I’m glad I can bring them a bit of joy. That’s the power of local food. Once you’ve tasted it, you know.

*That’s a Margie joke.

Nutrition facts and analysis for Florida avocados

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