BLOOMINGTON, Calif. — Rain-thirsty California was finally getting above average winter precipitation by early February. It was good news/bad news for the state’s southern avocado growing region.


The Riverside and San Diego counties’ growers traditionally are the season openers for California avocados. This year, harvest delays caused by rain and an extremely heavy fruit set in the north caused the roles to be reversed.


The slower start was of little concern to Giovanni Cavaletto, vice president of operations at Index Fresh Inc., Bloomington. The company, which complements its California fruit with imports from Mexico and Chile and sources avocados from both of the state’s growing regions, is anticipating a banner year.


“In 2006, we had our first 1 billion-pound year,” Cavaletto said. “This year, we’re projecting 1.4 billion pounds.”


To handle the extra fruit, Index Fresh recently completed a $2.5 million upgrade at its Bloomington packinghouse, he said.


“We have new sizers, new packing lines and a new bagging machine,” Cavaletto said. “The upgrades have doubled our throughput.”


Index Fresh markets to retail, foodservice and wholesale. The nation’s sagging economy has spurred avocado sales to foodservice, Cavaletto said, as diners stepped down from high-end restaurants to more family-oriented eateries.


“That’s where our foodservice business has really grown,” he said.


Index Fresh, which began as a cooperative in 1914, marks its 10th anniversary as a corporation this year, but its roots remain embedded in California soil. Every member of the company’s board of directors is a California avocado grower, Cavaletto said.


“We absolutely put a premium on California fruit all day, every day,” he said.


The company’s long standing AvoTerra label continues on conventionally grown avocados. Organic fruit from Index Fresh carries the AvoLoma label.


“The volume of our organic avocados is growing every year, but it still represents less than 5% of our overall volume,” Cavaletto said.


The 2010 California deal, projected by the California Avocado Commission to be 470 million pounds, is a pleasant change at Del Rey Avocado Inc., Fallbrook.


“We’re coming off our smallest crop since 1980,” said co-owner Bob Lucy.


The California crop, which will be nearly triple the 2009 volume, should be good news to Del Rey’s growing customer base.


“After years of concentrating on foodservice and wholesale clients, we’ve expanded into retail the last three years,” Lucy said.


To provide ready-to-eat avocados for retail shelves, the company has expanded its ripening facilities.


“We’re running 160 pallets of avocados through our ripening rooms every week year round,” Lucy said.


The projected large crop has not removed the irrigation water concerns among southern region growers.


“The biggest alligator in the pond is water,” Lucy said.


To maintain groves and production levels, Del Rey has been forced to use well water on some acreage, but the trees are sensitive to the water’s high salt content.


“To eliminate the salinity, we installed a reverse-osmosis system, which cost $150,000,” Lucy said.


Water is just one concern for Steve Taft, president and chief executive officer of Eco-Farm Corp., Temecula.


The California Department of Food and Agriculture imposed quarantines in northern San DiegoCounty after infestations of Mediterranean fruit flies and Asian citrus psyllids were discovered.


The quarantines have increased the cost of avocado production. The psyllid problem requires inspections and removing leaves and any debris from the fruit, but spraying is mandatory for the Medfly.


“Everybody’s affected by the quarantines,” Taft said. “The growers must treat their groves every week for 10 weeks.”


The cost of each treatment can cost up to $20 per acre, he said.


The quarantines also are aggravating at Eco-Farms, because the company is working to qualify for goods agricultural practices certification, which European customers demand, Taft said.


“There has never been a food safety issue with avocados,” he said.


Taft and Eco-Farms were California pioneers in growing organic avocados.


“Production continues to grow, but it seems as if demand has flattened,” Taft said of the organic fruit.


The industry’s ability to deliver ripe, ready-to-eat avocados to retail and foodservice has been a driving force behind the category’s growth.


“It’s the future, and it’s here,” said Doug Meyer, vice president of sales and marketing for West Pak Avocado Inc., Temecula.


There is no one-size-fits-all approach to ripening the fruit, however.


“There are so many nuances, especially in early and late season fruit,” Meyer said. “It’s just as much an art form as technology.”


As has been the case with other grower-shippers, the recession has boosted West Pak sales to foodservice.


“Customers’ down shifting to fast food and more casual dining spots has been a big factor,” he said.


On the retail front, West Pak and its customers have had success with an in-house designed display stand for bagged avocados. The company provides interchangeable sign cards customized for retailers.


“The display is sized for attention, but it’s not too large to get in the way,” Meyer said.


The year’s large California crop and the growing popularity of avocados are not the only signs of optimism Meyer sees for the future.


He pointed to cooperation among associations representing offshore growers and importers in advertising campaigns during the major league baseball playoffs and the Super Bowl.


“That cooperation among associations is evidence we can work together to drive sales,” he said.


That cooperation extends to the California Avocado Commission.


“Grower-shippers are very pleased with the commission’s 2010 marketing campaign,” Meyer said.