In August I had the privilege of spending three days in Michoacán, Mexico visiting with Leonel Chavez, Owner and CEO of Michoacan Organics an export wholesaler dedicated to organic avocado supply chain and sales to the United States.
Leonel is a pioneer in organic avocados in Mexico with more than 20 years experience growing using organic practices. He has also now integrated biodynamic practices for the past six years. He has a unique farming method he calls "Farming for Life." Leonel's 10 brothers and sisters, and mom also grow avocados.
Leonel picked me up late in the evening at the Guadalajara airport, and as usual we stopped for some tacos en route to Uruapan, Mexico. After a few hours of sleep, and a few more hand made tacos and some fresh squeezed orange juice for breakfast, we were ready for our first visit of this trip; to an avocado packing house.
The packing facility was located right outside of downtown Uruapan (the world capital of Haas Avocado.) We first sat down with the owner to learn about his company history, and their impressive growth over the last 10 years. They now pack for several leading distributors in the US, in addition to a top level retailer, and importers from countries in Europe and Asia.
Although capacity at the facility is limited for much of the year, the owner seemed to know Leonel well, and agreed to make space to pack avocados for the Michoacan Organics brand owned by Leonel, in order to fulfill our buying needs in the US. The packing house consisted of two identical buildings with identical machinery separated by a see through glass wall. Since it was the "low season" on our visit, only one of the buildings was in use.
It was interesting to follow the flow of the avocado movement in the facility from arrival to being fully packed and in the refrigerated area ready for transport. First, avocados arrive packed in reusable plastic crates and enter the facility in the receiving area. The avocados are moved from the quarantine receivables on dollies to a large machine that cleans, and automatically sorts the avocados. Workers manually unload the avocados unto the machine. First there is an automated brush that cleans the avocado, and then they move down the conveyor belt to a sophisticated computer that automatically sorts the avocados by weight and size.
For wholesale distribution in the United States Avocados are generally packed into 25 lb boxes of 32s, 36s, 40s, 48s, 60s, 70s, 84s. The numbers refer to the quantity of avocados in each box. Once weighed, the machined automatically shoots the avocados to a designated area where all the avocados of the same size class are organized. In these designated areas mostly female workers rapidly pack the avocados into the boxes, while simultaneously sorting out first class and second class avocados for each size.
Leonel explained to me the importance of using stronger, more expensive boxes. If you use a cheaper box that isn't sturdy the boxes at the bottom of the pallet can start to break and it can damage the avocados. "Buyers can ask for discounts when this happens."
Following the thorough tour from the packing house owner and sales manager, we sat down once again in the owner's office to talk some more business.
As is common in Michoacán about half of the actual conversation is business, the other half is talking about their families, travel plans, and trends within the avocado market. On very little sleep I drank a black tea, however, Leonel who I am convinced isn't human doesn't drink any form of caffeine, even on a few hours of sleep.
After concluding our business meeting and tour of the packing house, it was time to drive out to our first farm visit with Leonel's mom, Maria.