For the Love of the Grove

Take a moment to walk the groves with Nick Lahr, Field Buyer for West Pak Avocado, and his passion for his profession quickly becomes evident. He’s most at home out in the field, taking in the fresh air and sunshine, even playing in the dirt a bit to ensure soil and leaf samples have a chance to reveal the true standing of these precious trees. He’s also the guy on-site at the crack of dawn, making sure crops are harvested to perfection, and these beautiful green globes of goodness make it safely to market.

Between harvests near the height of California avocado season, Nick tells us about the position that he holds so dear in a field engrained so deep in his being.

Nick, tell us about your job responsibilities?

My responsibilities include meeting with my growers and maintaining relationships by providing various services depending on the time of the year/growing season. Right now, in California season, I am walking groves with growers to help them weigh the pros and cons of a size pick, estimating crop sizes, and connecting growers with labor contractors. I am also scheduling pickups and drop-offs of full and empty bins and overseeing the harvest as we’re going through.

In the off-season, I do more prospecting where I am reaching out to bring on new growers while still maintaining current relationships, but instead of estimating fruit size, I may be taking soil, water, or leaf tissue samples to test for various nutrients and or contaminants so that the grower can make any decisions based on the results.

What is the typical day or week like for you?

I rarely have a “typical” day or week. Some weeks I’ll be four-wheeling up a mountain to see a grove, other times I am in the office making cold calls and managing various reports, forecasts, food safety audits, prospects, etc. Special projects always pop up too. Maybe I’ll give a field tour to reps from Target or a new hire at West Pak who might have never seen an avocado tree before. I show them around and give them an idea of what it takes for the growing cycle. They gain a better understanding when they see the avocados trees or how steep the hill is, and all of the work that goes into just getting that beautiful piece of fruit off that tree.

There are some weeks I’ve got bins that I need to pick up, a harvest to check on; sometimes, I even go out to open up a grove’s gates for harvest at 6:00 a.m. If a grower is doing a size-pick, for example, I keep an eye on the pickers so that they only harvest that specific size and leave the smaller sizes, so they are not eating up the crop for the season down the line.

How does it work in terms of food safety, especially with the recent outbreak? How does that affect your position or your department? 

Food safety is always a necessity, and multiple preventative measures are the name of the game when it comes to stopping the transmission of hazards. Hurdle technology is a method of ensuring pathogens in food products can be eliminated or controlled. This method combines more than one approach, each approach thought of as a hurdle the pathogen must overcome. Best practices to prevent the current virus include washing hands (hurdle 1), not touching your face (hurdle 2), avoiding contact with sick people (hurdle three), self-quarantine – hurdles upon hurdles. The recent and ongoing outbreak is going to test the limits of the whole industry. Me personally, I spend a lot of time in the field away from the masses, so I am enjoying having less traffic on the roads and am not overly concerned about contracting an illness. However, it’s not me that I’m worried about; I have loved ones who are type 1 diabetic or have other immunocompromised preconditions. Worrying about loved ones is really taking its toll.

At West Pak, we will continue to service our growers – we have implemented new company policies to be able to remain productive and minimize the risk of exposure.

How did you get your start in the produce industry?

My curiosity in agriculture was first piqued when farmers would bring their aluminum hoppers and tanks to be repaired at my dad’s welding shop when I was a child. That’s why I decided that I wanted to jump into that industry, and out of high school, I started at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo studying agricultural business. Right out of college, I did accounting for about two years and realized that was what I did not want to do. I did a 180 and started working for a harvesting company. But it was my stint working in sales for a beer company where I met the head of the California field department for West Pak, who found out that I have a degree in agricultural business. He offered me a job as a GAP coordinator, which lead to my current position as a field buyer. I feel like I have finally found my place.

Was there any special education or training required to do the job that you do now?

Having a degree in agricultural business is not a requirement, but it definitely made it easier to get to my current position. As far as specialized training, I have received a lot. I can’t really count the number of hours spent walking the groves with veterans of the company, going over the ins and outs of avocados and the industry as a whole, and just sponging from their expertise. I have probably learned more in the position than I did getting my degree. West Pak is also excellent about promoting education. They afford me every opportunity to develop and foster my interest and my learning in agriculture. They are adamant that I attend seminars by CAC and CAS and various training opportunities that are most often led by industry experts.

What would you consider to be the toughest part of your job?

The toughest part of what I do is figuring out what level of experience others have with avocados and being able to recall that at any-time. When talking to a new grower, I want to be able to explain things in a way that they can understand without confusing them, whereas a grower who has been in the game for 20 years might feel disrespected if I tried talking the basics with them.

What do you like best about your position?

That’s easy! I love being in the groves. I absolutely love it. There is just something romantic about being up on the hill with beautiful scenery, incredible views – it’s just tranquil, it’s sublime, it’s genuinely inexplicable.

Where are you from originally?

I am from Orcutt, a small Santa Barbara county region between Santa Maria and Los Alamos.

What’s one thing that others may not know about you?

I have been accepted on the board of directors for the California Avocado Society (CAS), which has been around for a hundred and five years. I am very honored even to be considered. I feel as though I found a fair amount of success, and I think that I will continue to find success. If I can give back to the industry that has helped me do that in any way that I can, then absolutely, I’m happy to volunteer my time – as much as I can do to give back, absolutely.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

In my spare time, I am a bit of an introvert; I like reading, watching tv, playing video games, investing, and trading in various stocks, funds, and futures contracts.

Do you have a favorite avocado dish?

I prefer to eat my avocados plain. I have always loved them in my salads and sandwiches, or I would add salt or hot sauce with avocados on some slices, but when I first started with West Pak, I wanted to learn flavor profiles of various avocados. Since then, I have developed a taste for it, and now I don’t want anything else on my avocado. I just want to enjoy the flavors and textures, and kind of gauge where it’s at in the season.

So, what are some of the differences?

At first, it was an avocado, is an avocado, is an avocado. But now I can differentiate between creamy, nutty, grassy, watery – there are all these textures and flavors that are definitely playing a part. I am learning my own palette. Different varieties will have different characteristics, and then timing in the season. Fruit that comes off the tree in January tends to be somewhat watery and grassy versus something harvested in May. But if you pick it off too late in the season, it may be a bit dry and rubbery. It’s not only the timing of when you pick an avocado, but how long has the fruit has an opportunity to ripen because the amount of ripeness will definitely play a factor in the flavor as well.

Do you have any favorite avocado memorabilia?

My girlfriend’s sister and brother-in-law have a graphic t-shirt businesses where they feature different little avocado puns on them. For example, there’s this avocado lifting weights, and it says avocad-bro, another with an avocado shelling out a bunch of bills, and it says avoca-dough, and one with an avocado putting its hand up like a warning sign, saying avocad-whoa. They’re pretty clever, really!