Apr 15, 2008
Peruvian Asparagus Imports Level off – at Least for a Year

Have Peruvian asparagus imports finally topped out?

That question was posed by John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board (MAAB), during the 2008 Oceana Asparagus Day in Shelby, Mich., March 13. He asked a panel of processors if the Peruvian tide had turned, but didn’t really get a clear answer. Not that he was expecting one.

According to the Food Institute, frozen asparagus imports into the United States in 2007 totaled 9.9 million pounds, up just 0.3 percent from the previous year. Canned asparagus imports, 25.5 million pounds, were down 5.1 percent from last year. Those numbers were the basis for Bakker’s question.

“I was surprised to see no change,” he said. “We’ve been seeing substantial increases in imports of processed asparagus year after year.”

A large chunk of that asparagus is from Peru. Peruvian imports have been growing steadily since 1991, when the U.S. government gave Peruvian asparagus growers duty-free access to the U.S. market in an effort to curtail cocaine production. Peru’s trade privileges have been putting extreme pressure on the U.S. asparagus industry ever since.

According to MAAB, the U.S. industry lost more than 10,000 acres between 2005 and 2007. Limited plantings have been made in the United States in the last five years, and it’s predicted acreage will continue to decline.

However, last year’s import plateau could mean Peru has finally saturated the U.S. market and things will start stabilizing, or it could just be a one-year anomaly. It’s too soon to tell, Bakker said.

One of the processors at the Oceana meeting, Ron Armstrong of Honee Bear Canning, had a few guesses as to why Peruvian imports might have topped out last year. In a single year, the value of the U.S. dollar has shrunk 13 percent compared to Peruvian currency, while transportation costs for the Andean nation have gone up 22 percent. He also speculated that recent problems with imported Chinese products made consumers leery of all foreign imports, at least for a while.

Peru has taken a significant portion of the U.S. market, but there are still buyers out there that want domestic asparagus, said Ken Nye, manager of the Michigan Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Association’s asparagus division. Nye encouraged asparagus growers at the Oceana meeting to concentrate on fresh sales as much as possible.

If Peruvian imports level off, it will be good for the entire industry, but California is more concerned with Mexican asparagus. Imports from that country have not stabilized, according to Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission.

California, the nation’s No. 1 asparagus-producing state, went from 36,000 acres of asparagus in 1999 to about 15,000 acres today. The state’s crop is predominantly fresh, she said.

It’s getting to the point where California growers won’t bother to harvest this year if they don’t get competitive prices for their asparagus, she said.

“I’m hearing that without fault from every grower,” she said. “It’s a good business decision. They can’t afford to lose any more money.”

As for Peru, the U.S. industry has been fighting to limit that country’s trade privileges for years, but the fight was officially lost when President George Bush signed the Peru Free Trade Agreement in January, giving Peruvian asparagus permanent duty-free access to the U.S. market. There will be no relief from that quarter, Bakker said.

The domestic industry was tossed a bone last year, when the Senate added $15 million in compensation to asparagus growers in its version of the Farm Bill. If the appropriation survives the legislative process, both fresh and processing asparagus growers will get checks. However, Congress is locked in a stalemate and keeps pushing back the Farm Bill deadline, and no one knows what the outcome will be, Bakker said.

“We’re all holding our breath to see what happens.”

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