HONOLULU - Guacamole connoisseurs around the U.S. will soon have a new domestic avocado to try - not from California or Florida, but Hawaii.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is changing its rules for Hawaii growers to allow them to ship Sharwil avocados to 32 Mainland states and the District of Columbia between November and March.
According to a USDA rule scheduled to be published in the Federal Register today, the shipments will help give shoppers an option to buy domestic avocados during winter months, when most grocery stores stock avocados from Mexico instead.
Growers mostly on the Big Island and Maui produce roughly 1 million pounds of the fruit each year, but until now they have only been able to sell within the state, said Tom Benton, president of the Hawaii Avocado Association.
Farmers sell 1 million pounds of avocados - about $700,000 worth - to stores and restaurants, said Benton, who runs a coffee and avocado farm on the Big Island that produces about 25,000 pounds of avocados per year.
"It has the potential of becoming a very strong part of Hawaii agriculture," Benton said. "I feel we could easily be on par with coffee or macadamia nuts or any other section of Hawaii agriculture."
Sharwil avocados are different from the Haas variety popular in many grocery stores. Sharwil avocados are larger, often rounder and still hard to the touch when they're ripe. But fans of the fruit in Hawaii tout them as superior to Haas.
"We're more worried about supply than having the demand," Benton said.
The move was praised Wednesday by U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, who said Hawaii's federal lawmakers have been pushing for the rule change since 1992.
Hirono and the state's other members of Congress sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in April urging him to change quarantine rules that effectively suspended shipping of Sharwils to the Mainland in 1992, when a fruit fly larvae was found in a packing house in Hawaii.
The rules required fumigation and cold treatments that ruin the quality of the fruit.
Since then, scientists studied shipping protocols and found the avocados are poor hosts for fruit flies, the lawmakers said.
"With this approach, the risks of accidental introduction of oriental fruit flies to the U.S. Mainland are practically nonexistent," the letter said.
Benton said he thinks it will take about 10 years for the Hawaii avocado industry to reach its full potential in the U.S. market, with years of proving itself as a product and eventually reaching other U.S. states, as Mexico avocados have.
California and Florida - America's biggest avocado-growing states - aren't among the states where Hawaii growers will be allowed to sell.
The USDA said in its rule change that it anticipates Hawaii will provide a tiny fraction of the total U.S. avocado supply next year - well under 1 percent.