A couple weeks ago, my friend Hannah introduced me a TED talk with a scandalous title: “When Ideas Have Sex.”
It’s a short clip, about 16 minutes long. We watched it together while sipping beer and munching oil-drizzled dolmas. I suggest you do that too, because the speaker, Matt Ridley, will bring a fascinating perspective into how human beings advance and innovate.
One thing he said particularly stood out to me: “Who knows how to make a computer mouse? Nobody. Literally, nobody.”
Nobody, from the CEO of Apple, to the factory worker, to the truck driver who distributes the mouse to Radio Shack stores, knows how to make a computer mouse from start to finish. It would take forever to learn all the skills and procure all the separate materials to build one fist-sized computer mouse. But with a bit of teamwork and communication, we now probably produce millions of computer mouse (computer mice? mouses?) a year in various designs and qualities.
Amazing, huh. We human beings are the only species that have become more prosperous even as we become more populous. The reason, Mr. Ridley argues, is because we are also the only species that communicate ideas, cooperate, and work for each other. And that kind of interchange right there, is why there’s always hope for the advancement of human kind.
Everything he said made sense to me: we can’t live in this society without working for each other. We all have our specialized fields, and we all play our minor roles in improving living standards for each other. That’s the beauty and power of humans. Consciously and unconsciously, we live in a state of constant interchange, melding ideas and production and thus progressing incrementally.
I thought about that talk again while touring an avocado farm last Saturday.
Most of us know where avocados come from: a tree. But do we know all the energy and process needed to bring those avocados from tree to plate? Do we even think about the amount of manpower and cooperation needed to bring one sticker-stamped avocado into our local grocery store? I had the honor of seeing the whole process for myself.
The California Avocado Commission invited me to tour the journey of an avocado, from seed to store. It’s all in celebration of California Avocado season, which kick-starts early April through September.
I knew I had to invite Hannah then, because she is a true avocado-lover. Why, the night before, she had two whole avocados for dinner—by the spoon! Hannah is a little camera-shy, but she had no problems taking tons of pictures of and for me. She took most of the beautiful pictures below. Thank you Hannah!
This is Jan DeLyser, VP of Marketing at the California Avocado Commission, which represents the hundreds of avocado growers in Southern California. I met her two years ago at another avocado-themed event. She actually remembered my kimchi guacamole creation! That’s why she’s great at what she does.
We met early morning at the Mission Produce Packing House in Oxnard, which is about an hour’s drive away from Los Angeles. The tour was organized for local bloggers. I’ve never toured an avocado farm before, and I’m currently taking an Environmental Journalism class, so I knew I had to jump on this opportunity.
We signed in, got our badges, received a small bag of press goodies, and then took a pee trip together. It was all very VIP and professional. There were even two friendly professional photographers lurking around snapping pictures of us, yay! Once all the bloggers arrived, we piled into a bus and were off on our tour.
Driving through Oxnard felt like I was in a different state. We drove pass miles and miles of strawberry fields and citrus trees. It was certainly an entirely different landscape from the dense, traffic-terror city of Los Angeles!
Oxnard is a coastal area blessed with the perfect agricultural climate. It’s one of the few areas in the world that has a Mediterranean climate—perfect for cold-hating avocados.
We visited the home of Dan and Susan Pinkerton at neighboring Santa Paula first. Dan is an avocado farmer, and nephew of the founder of the Pinkerton avocados. In case you didn’t know, Pinkerton is a variety of avocados. The most famous avocado variety, which you’ve probably heard of, is the darker skinned Hass avocado, which actually originated in California as well.
The view at Dan and Susan’s home is BEAUTIFUL. I’ll try to let the pictures speak for themselves, but gosh we were all in awe when we stepped out of the bus.
Just fields and fields of forest greens, soaking up sun from the clear sky, overlooked by hazy mountains. I haven’t seen so many shades of greens since living in Los Angeles.
Being surrounded by bloggers meant it took a good half-hour before we settled for brunch, because everyone was blasting our their cameras and snapping away. It also meant you’re in trustworthy hands asking them to take your picture with your DSLR.
Dan and Susan’s home is gorgeous, too—flanked with palm trees, basking in warm sun, embraced by verdancy. They also have a lovely pool:
And an outdoor dining table and fireplace.
It’s the ultimate California dream house!
Dan and Susan are a sweet, lovely couple, but they’re also visionaries in their own field.
The 125 acres they own used to be hilly and wild. But they recognized it for the fertile land it is, and managed to raze it down, plant avocado seeds and grow rows of healthy trees. Now they produce tens of thousands of avocados a year.
Dan is a retired military officer. You can kind of tell just meeting him. He’s really fit, very sharp, sincere and warm, yet proper. This may sound weird, but I liked him the moment I saw his elaborate belt and silver buckle. You can’t disrespect a man with a nice belt.
Plus, he really knows his stuff. Agriculture is a complex, tough business. You have to know and meet all sorts of regulations, and even if you do everything right, you can’t predict Mother Nature. You’re at the mercy of so many factors. Farming is no hillbilly work. You need great intelligence and savvy business skills. It’s not just about growing as many fruits as you can.
The Pinkertons had brunch all set up when we arrived. I loved the outdoor table seating. It was all so fresh and vibrant.
Everything, of course, was avocado-themed:
Above are just some of the dishes served. There were avocado omelets, avocado salads, avocado ceviche, avocado hash potatoes, avocado cream cheese… Even the bacon has some kind of avocado infused in it—it was smoked on avocado wood.
And look, dessert!
That’s avocado-chocolate pudding. Check out this recipe by the California Avocado Commission to recreate it in your kitchen.
It was such a lovely, delicious meal. If you love avocados, this is the meal to have. You’ll probably ingest at least two whole avocados in one plate. I thought of all the healthy fats I’m eating and felt saturated with health and nourishment. Here’s to great hair and skin!
After satiating ourselves on avocados, we piled into the bus again, and drove down to the Pinkertons’ avocado grove.
Here’s where most of our avocado education took place, though eating them was a fun lesson too.
One fascinating thing I learned about avocado trees: They are bi-sexual! Depending on the cultivar, the flowers on avocado trees switch sexes certain times of the day. For example, flowers will open as female one morning, close up in the afternoon, and then open as male the next afternoon. That means it can self-pollinate, though it still needs some exterior factors in order to bud properly.
To make sure that the trees are healthy, Dan checks leaf and soil samples every year. To prevent depletion of soil nutrients, you have to keep a detailed track of elements left in the soil for every 1,000 lbs of fruit produced. That’s particularly important in avocado trees, because they suck out so much nutrients. Just think about how much energy (calories and nutrients) one avocado fruit has, and think about how much nutrients are required to grow that one fruit.
The avocado production in California has been increasing yearly, but that just means they’ll probably face a year of shortage soon, because the soil will need a break to replenish. Plus, certain varieties like the Hass alternate years of high and low yield.
Watering is probably one of the most important part of growing avocados. Avocado trees are shallow rooters—their roots only dig about 1.5 feet deep—so there’s only so much water they can suck up. That means Farmer Dan needs a precise science in estimating how much irrigation to use. Too little water means puny and sun-burnt avocados, while too much water will predispose the tree to root and crown rots. Complicated, isn’t it?
All of the avocados in California are hand-picked. That day, we got the chance to hand-pick our own avocados, too.
Dan provided us with a couple of clippers—basically, long poles of shears—that you place under a mature avocado. You tug at a string that swings a blade over the stem—and the fruit will plop into the bag right under.
Avocado pickers will also be carrying a sling-on bag to lug their picked fruits. There’s also a mini clipper affixed to the bag to snip off any remaining stems from the avocado.
I’m modeling that bag right now. Fashionable, huh?
Hannah and I made a huge mistake picking the avocados though. We accidentally picked avocados that weren’t mature.
Turns out every variety has their own seasons of maturity, and we were picking from the Lamb Hass, which isn’t due to pick for another month. We felt really bad—we basically picked fruit that can never be eaten. Gah, so many things to know about one fruit!
After the grove tour, we drove back to the Mission Produce Packing House in Oxnard.
After hand-picking avocados and loading them into huge-ass bins, these avocados still need to be packaged and shipped, which is where the Mission Produce Packing House steps into duty. It’s a huge, multi-million dollar game of avocado tag.
Before we took the tour around the packing house, however, all of us had to wear this nasty fashion Hitler called hairnets.
Yeah…nobody looks good in a hairnet.
Maybe that’s why our tour guide, Mission Produce Sales/Category Manager Dave Fausset, had no hair.
No hair, no hairnets. Smart.
What you see behind him is the hydro-cooler. Basically, it’s a bathhouse for sun-toasted avocados fresh from the orchards. The avocados are dipped into an ice-cold bath for about 45 minutes to bring their internal temperature down to the optimal 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
It was a hot day, so we enjoyed the chilly breeze whooshing out of that humongous cooler. I got a brain freeze from it, though. Who needs Slurpees when you’ve got a hydro-cooler?
We then moved on to the packing house, where we watched avocados bump and grind on conveyors. First, these avocados are washed once again in soap and chlorinated water.
Then they move on to be coated with food grade wax.
The wax really isn’t necessary at all…but consumers expect shiny, pretty avocados, and if that’s what they want, that’s what they get. We’re a beauty-obsessed society—even our fruits need to go through cosmetics!! Sorry, rant.
Now that they’ve been all pruned and beautified, these avocados are judged once again on their appearance. They hop over to a group of inspectors who check for any indication of sun burns, limb rub, worm damage, ground damage, mechanical damage, thrip or pest nibbles.
Those that don’t meet Mission’s high standards are removed from the pile. Grade #1 means totally blemish-free. Grade #2 means it has some blemishes, but still edible. Hannah took a shot of the grading cheat sheet for us:
After grading, the fruit is individually weighed. It’s really cool how the weighing is done mechanically:
The avocados are dropped into separate levels according to their weight and size. That individual container they’re sitting on are sensitive to the slightest ounce.
Depending on their weight, they will be receive a PLU sticker that designates size, country of origin and ripeness.
And the round and round they go, journeying into different boxes and packages according to size and grade.
Once the avocados are popped into their proper place, they are packed into crates…
Or these familiar nets…
Costco-bound, I’m sure. Or maybe Trader Joes. Preferably my hat.
Now, this part is relatively simple compared to the whole aspect of “how ripe should the avocados be?” Avocados, like bananas, mature on the tree but ripen after picking. So how much should the packing house ripen the avocados before shipping?
It’s both a science and an art, according to our hairnet-free tour guide. The ripening process is based on both a comprehensive knowledge of the fruit and years of experience. It’s also contingent upon multiple variables, like how far is the fruit traveling? What do customers want? Is it for supermarkets or restaurants? What’s the temperature like at this place and that place?
Mission Produce cannot leave it all to nature. Avocados ripen by naturally producing ethylene gas, but they don’t usually ripen fast enough for customers and retailers, at least not predictably enough for Mission to control the process. Thus Mission has its own “ripening rooms,” basically a walk-in refrigerator that combines refrigeration, airflow and synthetic ethylene gas to help push forward the ripening process in a steady pace.
Even so, not all loads of avocados are ripened to the same stage. Once again, it depends on their destination and retailer demands. At the heart of it all, it’s all about communication, communication, communication. It’s all so complex. Developing this system took many, many hours of research and human brain power.
This is where our tour ended, but the journey for avocados still continues. After they’re loaded into gargantuan trucks, these alligator pears are shipped off to various distribution centers. For example, Costco has its own distribution center, and so does Ralphs, or Walmart. Once they reach their prospective distribution hub, they are re-shipped to different stores.
Phew. So many different steps, so many required teamwork and relationships, just to get a few avocados into consumer hands.
I got to skip the middleman though. Hannah and I lugged home a full paper bag of avocados from Dan and Susan. And then we were gifted a sack of avocados again from Mission. That’s excluding the avocados we picked at Dan’s grove.
The California Avocado Commission really knows how to spoil us writers.
Since Hannah has more mouths to feed, I gave her my Mission sack of avocados. She went home and counted 32 avocados. What in the world can we do with 32 avocados? I have a feeling that for Hannah, it’s going to be sprinkled with coarse salt and eaten with a spoon within a couple days.
For me though, I’m planning to make ice cream. Cake. Bread. Scones. Pancakes. Face masks. I still haven’t decided yet. What would you do if you had 20 avocados?
A big shout out of gratitude to all the wonderful people who made this happen, including Hannah, who was the best company and photographer ever.
It was a freaking blast touring the partial journey of the avocado, from grove to store. Did I tell you I even got to ride the tractor?
Well, actually, all I did was climb in and get swallowed up by that ginormous machine. Since I totaled my last car, I decided against trying to drive it. Not with all the camera and iPhone-totting bloggers/witnesses around!
But anyway, the point of this super long post is: It’s incredible to think about how even the most miniscule objects we use in our daily life—chopsticks, nail clippers, that 4-lb jar of Ketchup, even that rubber band that holds your scallions together—are all products of interchanging ideas, labor and services.
It kind of puts even the most banal things into grander perspective for me.
I’ll remember all the work and effort put into the avocados I buy on sale at my Mexican supermarket: Dan the farmer, the avocado pickers, Dave the Mission manager, the ladies who grade the avocados, the bulky men who carries the crates to the ripening room, the scientists who created bottled ethylene gas, that guy who honks repeatedly as he tractors boxes of avocados around, the companies that make the boxes, the engineers who designed all the factory machines, the manufacturers of the conveyer belts, the real estate that sold the land, Jan and her crew at California Avocado Commission who helps promote the avocados, the health inspectors, the retailers, the Hawaii shirt-wearing cashier at Trader Joes…
Dang. You see what I mean.
Going back to Matt Ridley’s TED Talk, “When Ideas Have Sex.” I originally thought of naming this post “When Avocados Have Sex.” And then I realized it just didn’t make sense, and not just because avocados self-pollinate.
Avocados are just the (re)product(ion). Behind it, it’s all humans. It’s all us. Working for each other to improve one another’s life, one avocado at a time.