Asparagus farmers end season on high note
By Kate Campbell
Employees weigh asparagus that has already been cleaned, sorted, trimmed and bunched on the packing line at A.M. Farms near Stockton.
Marc Marchini, left, and brother Paul check the quality of asparagus spears in the field.
Asparagus is hand harvested to protect emerging shoots growing beside market-sized spears.
After a number of seasons that featured disappointing prices or yields, California asparagus farmers say they've had a good year as they wind up the 2012 harvest—despite an inauspicious beginning.
"The season started with an ominous feel because it was dry in the beginning," said Marc Marchini, whose family has grown asparagus near Stockton for generations. "We were fearful this winter when we didn't get any rain. Then it rained, which is good, but at that point it created mud problems. But we got though it and right now, we're at the twilight of harvest season."
He said market prices were low at the beginning of the season, and the currently high market prices don't fit the usual price cycle for the crop.
"We're grateful for the current price level because it helps us make up for what we lost in the beginning," Marchini said.
The depressed asparagus prices early in the season were not unexpected, said Cherie Watte Angulo, California Asparagus Commission executive director.
"There was a large volume of Mexican product in the market at the end of their season," she said. "They push their harvest as long as they can to take advantage of the Easter marketing price bump. They scale down from there and our growers start making decent prices."
In addition to Mexico, Peru also grows for the fresh market. Although California asparagus farmers used to grow for the processed market—canned and frozen—that market segment has largely been taken over by China. In 2008, China produced 6.3 billion metric tons of asparagus, compared with all U.S. production of 43 million metric tons.
"Fresh-market asparagus from China hasn't come over here," Marchini said. "I don't think it's going to be an issue. They're absorbing quite a bit of their own production because of their population size. I think our competitors for the next 10 years will be Mexico and Peru."
As producers of a hand-harvested crop, asparagus growers are particularly sensitive to farm labor issues, Marchini said.
"My No. 1 concern is asparagus imports from other countries, but my next biggest concern is labor," he said. "Because we have no machine that can harvest the asparagus and most of the packing sheds are still hand-packing operations, we are 100 percent dependent on labor."
Asparagus farmers estimate that hand labor totals 70 percent of the cost of production—making asparagus one of California agriculture's most hand-crafted crops—harvested, sorted, cleaned and packed by hand.
"We're facing further issues with crop management materials that are being taken off the list of available products," Marchini said.
Asparagus is vulnerable to aphids and certain beetle species, but there is very little pesticide used on the crop overall, he said.
Although California asparagus acres have dropped dramatically since the heyday of the 1960s, yields have steadily improved with new cultivars and better farming techniques, crop experts say.
In 1960, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show more than 73,000 acres of asparagus were harvested with a farm value of about $22 million. In 2011, California farmers harvested about 11,500 acres of asparagus with a farm value of more than $57 million.
The state's three major asparagus-growing areas are the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Salinas Valley and the western San Joaquin Valley, near Firebaugh. Those growing areas supply most of the western United States, with additional supplies coming from Washington state.
While the harvest season lasts only 60 to 90 days in each production area, California's wide range of microclimates allows for fresh asparagus to be available from January through May, with a small amount in September and October.
Asparagus is graded, sized and packed in sheds located near the fields to assure maximum freshness.
Spears are clipped to about 9 inches in length, which is what supermarkets sell. The spears are typically bundled into 1-pound bunches, containing 10 to 12 spears, and placed into 30-pound crates specially designed for safe transport. Club stores order bunches weighing about 2.5 kilos, which makes for additional steps in hand packing.
Unlike many vegetable crops that are replanted each year, asparagus is a perennial, fern-like plant, often referred to informally as "grass." The planted crop can maintain commercial production levels for 10 to 15 years before the field needs to rest and then after a few years be planted again to asparagus.
Marchini said one of his concerns is running out of land on which to plant asparagus.
"That is land that has never before been planted to asparagus. Some of our ground has been replanted to the crop three or four or more times already," he said.
Every spot of ground in the delta has been planted to asparagus at one time or another, he said, which is why farmers are expanding growing operations beyond the delta to other growing regions.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.