California Avo Commission spotlights female farmers

Catherine Pinkerton Keeling is one of the female avocado farmers the California Avocado Commission is celebrating in honor of International Women's Day, March 8./California Avocado Commission

In honor of International Women’s Day, March 8, the California Avocado Commission, which represents growers farming on about 50,000 acres in the state, is sharing profiles of some female avocado farmers to showcase the role of women in the industry.

As with all farming, women have long been active in growing California avocados. Many California avocado growers come from multigenerational farming families, and with generational transitions happening, increasingly women are taking on avocado grove management and ag industry leadership roles, the commission said.

“The Commission is happy to celebrate International Women’s Day and the many women involved in the California avocado industry,” California Avocado Commission Online Marketing Director Zac Benedict said in a release. “This month our public relations team conducted outreach to consumer media outlets to share stories of a few of these hard-working farmers.”

Tara Axell Rosenthal is a fifth-generation California farmer and third-generation California avocado grower. She grew up on the Axell family avocado grove, but it wasn’t until 2020, after her father’s passing, that growing avocados became her profession. Her mother, Joanna Axell, is the owner of the family ranch, Rancho Rodoro. In order to help her mother and the avocado groves, Rosenthal, her brother Brandon Axell, and her husband Ryan Rosenthal work together to keep everything running smoothly.

Jessica Hunter was the first third-generation family member to join the family business after college. After 20 years, she is now CEO of Del Rey Avocado, her family’s avocado growing and packing company located in San Diego County. Her daily duties include managing the California avocado procurement team and the operations of both the packing and distribution centers on the West Coast. She also manages more than 100 acres of the company’s avocado groves. Hunter serves on the executive committee of the California Avocado Commission board of directors and is an active spokesperson for the California avocado industry.

Catherine Pinkerton Keeling’s family has been growing California avocados for more than half a century, but that didn’t make her a farmer. After college, Pinkerton Keeling and her husband Travis Keeling volunteered for the Peace Corps in Costa Rica, helping women become economically independent as part of a rural development program. She later became a licensed clinical social worker in the Midwest.

In late 2017 when the devasting Thomas Fire destroyed her parents’ home and about 70% of their avocado ranch, the Keelings felt a calling to help her family rebuild their farm. A passionate advocate for California avocados and sustainable agriculture, Pinkerton Keeling now serves as an alternate on the California Avocado Commission board of directors. In November 2022 she also was elected to the board of directors of the United Water Conservation District.

Hilary Kitzman Wilkie was introduced to growing avocados on her parents’ avocado grove in Morro Bay, Calif. She received her degree in computer science and then home-schooled four children. In 2016 when Kitzman Wilkie’s father announced his retirement, Kitzman Wilkie and her husband Andrew Wilkie learned to grow California avocados. Now they manage day-to-day operations. She is proud that the family avocado farm (Kitzman Fair Haven) uses a variety of environmentally responsible practices, including using natural leaf mulch and solar energy.

“The stories of these four women are helping to highlight the roles of women in agriculture,” Benedict said. “With more female California avocado growers being available and willing to share, CAC is able to feature their stories on, social media, in marketing materials and retail programs.”

The Irvine, Calif.-based commission’s forecast for this year is 257 million pounds, Benedict said. There was relatively light harvesting in February and volume is expected to ramp up in March with peak availability from April through July.

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