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US (WA): Good year for asparagus if labor pool wide enough

It's hard to perfect the art of cutting asparagus, and the workers who return year after year are an invaluable resource.

"It's the hardest, but it's the most fun," said Leonor Cruz, who has cut asparagus at Monte Schilperoort's farm in Harrah, Yakima County, for 18 years and will pick cherries and apples this summer. "I like working in the fresh air better than in the packing houses."

"A good asparagus cutter's the equivalent to a Ph.D.," said Brian Haas, 75, owner of Haas Farms in Sunnyside, only half in jest. He started cutting asparagus on his uncle's farm when he was 10 and has been involved in the business ever since, except for college and 10 years as an engineer.

"Asparagus cutting, like many of our agricultural jobs like thinning fruit, even picking fruit, is an art form," Haas said. "It is a skilled job. If (the workers) don't cut the asparagus right for me, they could ruin a field for me."

The cutting will carry on until the end of June, but only if the job is done correctly. The stalks must be cut below ground level so the spear can send up more stalks as the season progresses.

Packing houses want the spears to be 8 inches high, so the special asparagus-cutting knives also serve as measuring sticks, though seasoned cutters like Cruz don't need to check to know they've cut the right length.

This year's crop is looking set to be one of the best for years.

"We haven't lost any days due to freezing this year," said Haas. For the past four years, he said, it was easy to lose a week's worth of cutting to cold weather, which hurts not only the farm but the workers, who earn 24 cents per pound cut.

Wind has not caused any difficulty this year either.

Some local farmers are starting to slowly expand their asparagus acreage after bottoming out with low prices in the past few years. Peruvian imports just about killed the U.S. market.

However, some growers are still cautious. Manuel Imperial, owner of Imperial's Garden in Wapato, has planted more asparagus due to increased demand, but others farmers are taking a different direction. 

"People that we know, a lot of them are pulling out," compared with just a few entering the industry, he said. "Asparagus requires so many workers. I think that's why a lot of the farmers are getting out of it; the labor is intense."

Some farms in the Tri-Cities and in the Lower Yakima Valley have stopped cutting this year due to lack of workers, some farmers report.

Fortunately, Schilperoort's farm doesn't have that problem. Fonseca said most of their workers come back every year and stay through the end of the season, unlike some farms whose workers jump ship to pick cherries before asparagus is finished.

For Cruz, it's not hard to find a reason to stay.

She and her family moved to the valley from Mexico in 1994, and she and her husband have put in long hours to provide for their four kids.

"We work hard in order to bring them up, and to push them to want to study," she said.

Source: seattletimes.nwsource.com

Publication date: 5/7/2012


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