Nestled at the foot of the Santa Ynez Mountains in the small coastal town of Carpinteria is California’s only 100-percent-organic packing house for avocados—Las Palmalitas Ranch.
Las Palmalitas is a fifth-generation family farm currently run by Will Carleton and his son Billy. Will’s wife, Sharron, is the great-granddaughter of one of the property’s three original founding couples who left North Carolina and headed West in the late 1860s looking for farmland.
Sharron, Billy, and Will Carleton of Las Palmalitas Ranch
“They found it here in Carpinteria,” says Will. “They were [some] of the early settler-farmers of the region.”
The founders began by farming pampas grass and lima beans, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that they made their first foray into tree fruit with lemons. “The lemon business was kind of an up and down business” says Will. “So … they transitioned from lemons to avocados in the ‘50s.”
Will’s wife, Sharron, is the great-granddaughter of one of the property’s three original founding couples who left North Carolina and headed West in the late 1860s looking for farmland.
In the 1960s, Will was living with his wife and children in Silicon Valley where he worked as an engineer. Every summer, they would travel to Carpinteria to visit his mother-in-law, who lived in the original 1800s farmhouse and managed the orchard business.
In the late ‘80s, Will’s son Billy moved to the farm to work for his grandmother. After she passed away in 1993, Will and his wife became the owners of the property, and Billy continued working on the farm. Will would stop by periodically while on business trips and then moved to the ranch permanently in 2005 when he retired from his business management career.
Will Carleton overseeing an avocado load
The Carletons’ journey to organic production began when a local vegetable farmer named Steve Moore started managing Will’s daughter’s 10-acre avocado ranch nearby. Moore grew organically and biodynamically, and it didn’t take much for him to convince the Carletons to do the same. “We really believe that mother earth needs to be taken care of,” says Will. “And organics is one way we can help.”
Las Palmalitas first received its organic certification in 2000. When Will excitedly called up Calavo, the local packing house, to ask them if they paid a premium for organic fruit, he was shocked by the response. “Oh no, no, we don’t do organics,” they told him.
Will learned that the nearest avocado packer handling organics was Eco Farms in Temecula, over 150 miles away. “We had to figure out how to ship our avocados all the way down there,” he recalls. “Well, that got to be real problematic considering the issues of of how you ship them and how many get shipped at what time and so forth.”
“We really believe that mother earth needs to be taken care of. ... And organics is one way we can help.” -Will Carleton
“So … Steve [Moore] said, ‘Hey, why don't you pack your own fruit? Look at me, I'm packing vegetables for Veritable [Vegetable].’ And he had this little packing house/shed, and he had a bunch of tables. And he just did everything by hand with his workers.”
Moore told Will and Billy that their 20 acres of avocados plus the 50 surrounding acres that belonged to extended family was plenty of volume to support a packing operation—so they decided to go for it. “My son and I built a packing house and bought some equipment and hired some really good workers who live on the farm and went into business packing fruit ourselves,” Will says.
Word got around pretty quickly about the new outfit, and small local organic farms started asking Las Palmalitas to pack their organic avocados (and sometimes other organic commodities like lemons and cherimoya as well). “The smaller guys gravitated towards us since we were easy to deal with,” says Will. “And we're a small guy—we are the smallest packing house in California for avocados.”
Despite its small size, Las Palmalitas works with as many as 40 local organic farmers and moves somewhere in the ballpark of 3 million pounds of organic avocados per year (mostly of the Hass variety), which is roughly 10 percent of the organic California crop. Las Palmalitas sells its fruit to an impressive list of wholesale customers, including Veritable Vegetable, Heath & Lejeune, Organically Grown Company, Co-op Partners Warehouse, UNFI Fresh, and Charlie’s. They also sell directly to Lassens, a local natural foods retail chain.
Will and Billy Carleton, Las Palmalitas Ranch
“Working with Will and Billy is like working with family,” says John Odahara, Lassens’ regional produce and bulk and transportation manager, who has worked with Las Palmalitas for several years. “Their product is fantastic. … All the customers love the fruit because it can always be trusted to be the best.”
Despite its small size, Las Palmalitas works with as many as 40 local organic farmers and moves somewhere in the ballpark of 3 million pounds of organic avocados per year (mostly of the Hass variety), which is roughly 10 percent of the organic California crop.
Heath & Lejeune’s Director of Procurement David Weinstein agrees. “People ask for [Las Palmalitas avocados] over and over again,” he says, noting that they are consistently of high quality. “It’s something that we’re happy to have because we know we can satisfy our customers’ tastes.”
David Weinstein, Director of Procurement, Heath & Lejeune
While Will acknowledges that the offshore fruit from Mexico, Peru, and elsewhere is “quite good,” he believes the freshness of California avocados cannot be beat. “We’ll pick today, and it’ll be on the truck tomorrow, and it'll be in the shelves in Portland in four days. And you can tell the difference—it’s not a subtle difference,” he says, explaining that imported fruit in the grocery store is often several weeks old.
Las Palmalitas’ avocados also benefit from the region’s excellent growing conditions, which include rich alluvial soils due to sediment runoff from the nearby mountains. “It's just a wonderful area for tropical fruit like avocados,” says Will, noting that the trees love the fog that’s typical of the Santa Barbara coast.
“People ask for [Las Palmalitas avocados] over and over again. ... It's something that we’re happy to have because we know we can satisfy our customers’ tastes.” -David Weinstein
Las Palmalitas avocados are usually available from February until the end of November, with the highest volumes in the summer months. Because the fog has been so prominent this year (which helps keep the fruit on the tree and in good condition), Will suspects the season will be a long one.
In the near term, Will anticipates the business will continue to do well. He says the grower price for organic California avocados has remained quite stable over the years (even rising a bit), and demand is very strong. “It's really growing rapidly,” he says, attributing the bulk of the growth to the marketing and consumer education efforts of the Hass Avocado Board, where he is currently a board member.
When it comes to the longer-term outlook, Will is more uncertain. While his son Billy, who is now in his 50s, plans to continue to run the business until he retires, no one from the next generation has of yet expressed any interest in taking over the operation.
“We've had developers come and say, ‘Hey, would you like to sell your land?’ So sooner or later, that may happen,” says Will, with a hint of sadness in his voice. He adds that he’s also had talks with some of the large avocado packers, and there’s a possibility that one of them might eventually buy the property as a secondary location.
For now, though, Las Palmalitas will continue packing organic avocados as it has for the last 20 years. “We have a lot of success, and we owe it to our customers as well as to our farmers that have supported us,” says Will. “And so we've been very lucky—but we have a good product!”