Meet the Rancher who made Irvine avocado country

by Tom Berg

Next time you dip into a bowl of guacamole or brunch on avocado toast, you might want to thank Pete Changala.

For 25 years, he has run one of the nation’s most productive avocado orchards – right here in Irvine.

“We’re one of the top five producers in the U.S.,” says Changala, inspecting a hillside grove. “And I’ve heard from many people that our avocados taste better than other avocados.”

Each year, Changala plants new trees in the orchard that gives Orchard Hills its name. This fall, he’s planting 4,000, which will keep the orchard at about 100,000 trees.

“It’s rewarding when you plant a tree, nurture it and watch it bear fruit,” he says. “When you see it grow, it feels personal.”

Farming runs deep in his veins. His grandfather and father both were tenant farmers. By age 9, Changala and his family were living on The Irvine Ranch. By 12, he was working on the family farm.

Pete Changala has kept Irvine a top U.S. avocado producer for 25 years.

He’s planting 4,000 new avocado trees in Irvine

As a teenager, Changala drove tractors, bucked hay — and started tomato fights.

“I was the orneriest cuss out there because I had a fairly good arm and I’d nail anyone in range with a tomato,” he says.

At school, he played baseball. At home, he harvested tomatoes and watermelons. On days off, he and his brother rode motorbikes, hunted and fished in the backcountry of the ranch.

“It was a wonderful life,” he said. After earning a degree in agricultural business at Cal Poly Pomona, he landed a job with the same company that leased his dad their farm — Irvine Company. He now serves as vice president of agricultural operations.

‘Our grove’

Changala credits his team for making the orchard a success.

“Some of them have been here longer than me,” he says. “We all call it our grove, and we treat it with care.”

The Village of Orchard Hills was carefully designed around these avocado orchards that sweep down from ridgelines to the roadsides.

They provide an intimate connection to nature and Irvine’s ranching history. And they provide a tranquil backdrop for twilight hikes to Loma Ridge, put on by The Irvine Ranch Conservancy, with views clear to the Pacific Ocean.

“They’re part of Irvine’s legacy,” Changala says. And they’re home to wildlife like spotted hawks, owls and mule deer.

Newly planted avocado trees join the larger Irvine Ranch orchard that stretches over the foothills above Irvine.

Ideal climate

The orchard’s Hass avocado trees set fruit in May. That fruit continually gains oil — the healthy, polyunsaturated kind of oil — until it’s picked the next year. Only then does an avocado ripen.

“Irvine avocados are the only ones we sell,” says Anne Manassero, of Manassero Farms Market, with four produce stands in the county. “They’re the highest quality, and our customers say they taste the best.”

It turns out that Irvine’s Mediterranean climate is ideal for growing avocados. And the trees’ shallow roots thrive along the Lomas de Santiago Hills.

Most of the orchard was planted in the 1970s and early ’80s. By the 1990s, it had grown into the nation’s No. 1 supplier of avocados.

Today’s 920 acres still make it one of the nation’s top producers, and provide a living link to Irvine’s agricultural past.

“Sometimes, I’ll look out from a hilltop that I stood on when I started here 25 years ago,” Changala says. “And I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment knowing I’ve been a part of all this.”

For Irvine avocados (available in March): Manassero Farms 15670 Jeffrey Road manasserofarms.com