Asparagus farmers work to remain competitive

Growers say they hope to harvest enough California asparagus for the Easter market, but with recent cool temperatures slowing growth of the crop, and reduced acreage, the locally grown spring vegetable may be harder to find.

Warm temperatures in February started production early in many fields. But with Mexican asparagus in full production at the time and selling well below what it costs to harvest and pack the California crop, Bob Ferguson, who farms in the San Joaquin Delta, said he disked under what had emerged in his fields in order to delay the crop for 10 to 12 days. Because some of the crop later suffered frost and hail damage after the February warm spell, he noted, "it was the right thing to do." He started harvest last week.

"Prices were way down at the beginning of our season," he said. "If we'd cut and packed, we would've taken a great loss."

With employment costs continuing to increase, Ferguson said growing a labor-intensive crop such as asparagus -which must be hand cut, sorted and packed- has not worked out for many California farmers, who last year planted 3,350 hectares of asparagus and harvested 3,240, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's down from 6,100 planted hectares in 2008.

"We've been seeing a steady decline in acreage over the last 20 years," said Cherie Watte, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission. "If the price doesn't rebound, none of it will be harvested, because the price has been so depressed."

She estimated California acreage this year may be down to 2,800 to 3,000, which includes new plantings that have replaced older, less-robust hectares. The crop is now grown primarily in the Central Coast, the San Joaquin Delta and the Central Valley. Acreage in the delta has seen the biggest decline, she said, with labor and transportation efficiencies being big factors.

"In Salinas, they don't have just asparagus as a fresh vegetable crop being harvested this time of year," she said. "They're able to fill loads with various commodities and make it more economical to ship the product."

With what remaining acreage he has, Ferguson said he's watching his harvesting and packing costs very carefully, while also watching market prices to know when to cease harvest. Those who want to buy California asparagus should expect to pay higher prices, he said.

"That's the only way. If not, then maybe the California asparagus program is done with," he added.

San Joaquin County grower Clark Mizuno, who farms in the Tracy area, used to grow about 240 hectares of asparagus, but he's down to 46 ha now. He noted that market prices have improved in recent days, now that supplies from Mexico are slowing and rainy, cool weather in California has not allowed farmers here to speed production. Asparagus will grow 7.5 to 10 cm a day when daytime temperatures are around 10o C and nighttime lows are hust above 0o C, he said.

Like Ferguson, Mizuno also did not harvest in February because of low prices. He said Mexico typically exits the market around mid-April, allowing California growers a window of about a month to market their crop at more-profitable prices, as the season winds down around mid-May. He noted availability of work crews also becomes tight toward the end of April when cherry harvest begins.

"Labor is tough to get and Mexico has been increasing in acreage, squeezing us out," he said.

At least with asparagus, Yolo County farmer Jim Durst is bucking the state trend: He doubled his acreage three years ago and is now harvesting about 80 hectares. The increase is all due to demand, he said. Being organic helps, he noted, as he markets to high-end retailers and sells out every year. "We've been in the business a long time, so I think we have a lot of customer loyalty," he said.

Because of high demand for his asparagus, he's been harvesting since February, but noted the crop has been growing slowly the past few weeks, with a lot of frost damage. Now that daytime temperatures are starting to warm, he said he expects to be at peak production by the end of this week.

Despite the niche of organic and high-end markets, Durst acknowledged that lower-priced Mexican imports have affected market prices, which have dropped 20 to 30 percent. Even so, he said, "our product still has enough demand that it's allowing us to stay in the business."

As a vegetable farmer, Durst said growing asparagus allows him to have a spring crop that brings in revenue during a time of year when he doesn't have much else in production.

For Contra Costa County farmer Barbara Cecchini, the problem with asparagus is not only with how much it costs to harvest the crop but with the availability of employees. She has two who live on her farm, and that has allowed her to continue growing it. She used to farm 400 ha of asparagus and now has 4, all of which she sells through farmers markets.

Because she has so few hectares left, her season is much shorter—about 60 days. She didn't harvest any of her crop in February because there were not enough markets open at the time. She also does not go through the "big Easter push" this time of year, as she did when she used to market to retailers, but she typically will sell more asparagus during the Easter weekend.

Although she doesn't compete directly with imports now that she sells only at farmers markets, Cecchini said it is still "frustrating" to hear customers complain about her pricing."Oh, we could go buy it at FoodMaxx for $4 a kg."
Cecchini always replies: "Yeah, if you want to buy it from Mexico."

But most of her customers are waiting to buy California asparagus, she said, adding that many of them are "sophisticated enough" to know the difference and "they're willing to pay the price."

Source: California Farm Bureau Federation

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