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Trading Apples and BlackBerries for Avocados

Seven years ago, Ciriaco "Cid" da Silva, a 1982 mechanical engineering alumnus, and his wife, Corinne da Silva, left the virtual world of the computer industry for the very real and earthy world of avocado farming. The outgrowth of this major career move is Bella Vado (Avocado Oil), the first U.S. manufacturer of avocado oil. Now Bella Vado is a very real Southern California treasure. In 2003, Cid resigned from his job as a software architect, while Corinne gave up her job as managing director of an Internet marketing firm, so they could purchase a 40-acre avocado grove near Valley Center in Southern California.

As an article in the North County Times once described this leap of faith, the da Silvas “traded their Apples and BlackBerries for avocados.”

“The career change, or change of gears, was driven by several things,” says Cid. “Above all, being burned out by the constant demands of software development, both on family time and the need to stay current in a technology moving at warp speed, weighed heavily. It required a lot of time and effort in order to stay on top of the game; time and bandwidth that I no longer could spare.” 

Bella Vado might seem a far cry from the software industry, but avocados are in Cid’s blood. The avocado was one of three major crops grown by his father when Cid was being raised on the Portuguese island of Madeira. “Growing up on a farm also helped me with the decision,” he notes. “It was not a shot in the dark.”

Engineering a facility to produce savory and healthy avocado oil also tested the skills he learned in the MIE department. “The other aspect of this adventure was a return to my engineering roots,” he says. “Software engineering was a great detour in my career, and a return to things mechanical was compelling. An engineering education was a great advantage in this endeavor, because I could engage the equipment producers and understand exactly the technical lingo and specs.”

Setting up the factory was no small order. It involved investing between $250,000 and $300,000 in a new olive mill and press because there’s no machinery designed to produce avocado oil. “I planned the building of the facility, helped build it, procured the equipment, and helped in its installation,” says da Silva. “Without an engineering background there is no way I would go it alone. I was in my element, and nothing was foreign.”

The production process is the same for avocado oil as for olive oil: Avocados are fed through a hopper, de-pitted, and de-skinned. The avocados are then kneaded and gently warmed before being put through a centrifuge to separate the oil from the pulp. After the pulp is extracted, the oil goes through a second centrifuge, which filters and polishes the oil. The avocado oil is hand-crafted using a creative combination of modern, state-of-the-art technology blended with Old World knowledge. The da Silvas created Bella Vado after years of research into the best ways to grow and harvest premium avocados to make this unique oil.

Cid adds that “The analytical skills gained by an engineering education, no doubt, make running a farming operation that much easier. It becomes a no-brainer. Jumping into such an endeavor, out of the blue, could be both calamitous and scary. An engineering education provided me with invaluable tools both in running the day-to-day operation and in solving technical and production problems.”

When this facility was commissioned, Cid knew nothing about avocado oil production. “I stood in a building full of expensive machinery that I had never seen or operated before,” he explains. “But I had confidence in both my skills and engineering tool chest to know that I could do it.”

Bella Vado oil is cold-pressed using modern equipment imported from Italy, a process that preserves all the natural vitamins. It is rich in Vitamins A, B1, B2, D, and E, as well as amino acids, sterols, pantothenic acid, lecithin, Omega 3, Omega 6, and potassium. Recent studies also show that avocado oil can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and prostate problems. As the da Silvas recommend, you can use their oil in a variety of appetizing ways: Blend it with whipped potatoes, drizzle it over steamed vegetables, use it in vinaigrette dressings, or introduce it as flavoring in soups or sweets.

“Today, I know the whole oil-making process inside out and can handle any contingency at any moment, such as failed bearings, motor failures, transformer blowouts, malfunctioning solenoids, failed frequency drives, pump failures, and so on,” observes da Silva.

Accordingly, he wears a whole hat rack full of engineering caps; that of an automation engineer, production planner, operator, electrician, maintenance technician, quality control expert, marketer, and more. “For instance, when a transformer blew out, and several tons of ripe avocados were ready for processing, that problem couldn't wait,” he recalls. “I sourced a used transformer and installed it myself. It could not wait for the electrician and was up and running in several hours.”

Bella Vado combines all the best aspects of Cid’s upbringing on a Portuguese farm and his education as a mechanical engineer, which also makes it a safer venture than his father ran. As he notes, his father’s farm was wiped out by competition from cheap South American produce “because he didn’t have a plan B.”

Plan B for the Bella Vado farm is based on the wondrous avocado oil being produced and da Silva’s UMass sheepskin in mechanical engineering. (January 2011)