Southern California avocado farms impacted as Mexican drug cartels take hold of market

VALLEY CENTER, Calif. -- The avocado boom in Mexico has pulled parts of the country out of poverty in just 10 years, but the prosperity there turns deadly as money-hungry cartels take hold of the market.

While there's brutality below the border, there's a history in the homegrown in San Diego.

"San Diego is the biggest producer of avocados in the state of California," said farmer Noel Stehly.

Sister-station KGTV took a trip to Stehly Farms in North San Diego County where you'll find more than 250 acres of the flourishing fruit. The land has been in Stehly's farm for decades.

"Those that buy California, great, but if you want it in November, you want a Haas avocado, it's not going to come from California," said Stehly.

That's where Mexico comes in, filling in the gaps with avocados that can be grown year-round. They're competing with American growers in production and now threatening their workers.

"I have a lot of my employees that work here right now in Michoacan," Stehly said. "They're home for the holiday, they'll come back over the next couple of weeks and my last words to them are, 'Just be careful. Just really be careful.'"

Michoacan is the heart of the violence, where gangs robbed USDA food inspectors at gunpoint in August.

"You hear the stories of what goes on down there," said Stehly. "They live in these pueblos that are within the growing regions that are dangerous. They're absolutely dangerous."

The cartels, while at war with themselves, are threatening growers and police departments with kidnapping, extortion, and murder.

"I just worry about them, they're part of my family." said Stehly. "Most of them were at my wedding and have been here long enough to know every one of my kids. I know every one of their kids; they're part of the family."

But the cartels aren't the only problem. Stehly said the water that feeds his farm is not what it used to be. The water now comes from the Colorado River instead of Northern California.

"I don't have enough well water to irrigate everything on my farm," said Stehly. "The price of water has gone up exponentially. Our water system in the state of California is broken and nobody's going to fix it."

The composition of the water has also changed with high levels of salt killing off his crop. The water issue is causing a decline in production on the farm.

"I do sell a lot less, I grow a lot less," said Stehly. "It's sad. It's sad to have drying trees on your property."

For this second-generation farmer, it's personal.

"This property is special. It's a labor of love now. It paid a lot of bills," said Stehly. "It's an important part of us. It would be hard to see it go."

Farmers are battling a water crisis in San Diego while violence rages to the south.

"It's gonna be tough to be a farmer anywhere in California," said Stehly. "Whether it's avocados, lettuce, alfalfa."

He said the best thing you can do is keep your support here in San Diego.

"I don't care if it's a local craft beer or a farmer," said Stehly. "Support local."