Apr 17, 2014
Washington asparagus growers pursuing a rebound

The Washington state asparagus industry has taken a number of blows in the past couple of decades, but it appears the rocky road may be smoothing out a bit as new opportunities are seen on the horizon.

Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission, spoke to Michigan growers at the 2014 Oceana Asparagus Day held March 13 in New Era, Mich.

Washington, the state that represented the standard of the industry heading into the early 1990s, has seen asparagus production plummet since then. But with demand and prices at all-time highs, there’s reason for optimism if the industry plays its cards right in the next few years, he said.

“Transition is sort of a stressful time,” Schreiber said. “Anytime you have stress and transition it’s a time of opportunity – if you can manage labor or mechanize. Right now, the majority of the asparagus growers are not optimistic about asparagus due to labor. However, there’s a smaller number whose optimism outweighs the pessimism of the majority.”

Despite ongoing challenges with labor availability, reduced production levels and foreign competition, a newer breed of asparagus growers in the state can thrive once again, he said.

“I think we have bottomed out and are on the way up in Washington. We need to get a solution to labor, whether through immigration reform or mechanization. With record prices, high demand, the potential for very high yields with high quality, I think we’re going to double our production in five years – 10 at the most. I’m not a very big deal, but I borrowed some money. I’m planting asparagus this year. I’m going the whole full deal. I’m not just planting high-density, high-variety, but I’m doing drip and organic and I’m packing it myself. So that’s what I think.”

He said asparagus prices for Washington growers increased 110 percent from 2002 to 2013.

“Tell me a crop that has gone up every year for 11 years in a row. In the future, if growers receive close to a dollar a pound and harvest 10,000 to 15,000 pounds, it’s a clear moneymaker. You can make more money on asparagus than most other crops, except for blueberries, right now in Washington, if you can get it harvested. And that last clause isn’t inconsequential.”

He expects 2014 asparagus prices to hit 95 cents a pound “because demand is high and the supply has not increased. It depends on weather and the prices in California and Mexico.”

Searching for answers

Schreiber touched on the decline of Washington asparagus production, which he said dipped by 72 percent from 2004 to 2013.

Having told Washington growers “production cannot continue to decline or our industry will be too small to be viable,” Schreiber said planting has increased but is “barely keeping up with declining acres.”

“When I came to Washington 21 years ago, we were number one in the production of asparagus in the United States. I’m concerned that we’re increasingly irrelevant in the marketplace.”

In 2004, the state produced 59 million pounds of asparagus. It is currently down to 15.8 million pounds, he said.

He said changes in production volumes have led to a shift in priorities for the Washington Asparagus Commission. The group’s efforts have shifted away from a heavy emphasis on promotion to a focus on research.

“The supply of asparagus in Washington has declined so much and the demand for asparagus now is greater than supply,” he said. “We don’t spend money on promotions because we can’t meet the market demands sufficiently.”

He said some younger growers are starting to venture into asparagus production and they are being encouraged to learn all they can about the commodity.

“The big thing we do in Washington is we do research – it’s our single biggest budget item.”

Among the 2014 projects are asparagus variety trials, continuing a disease survey, conducting a replant trial, white asparagus production, a nursery herbicide trial, aphid control by chemigation, and a trial to determine the relative contribution of genetics versus high-density planting.

The work also includes establishing an asparagus variety by crown root carbohydrate, and looking at direct seeds versus one- and two-year-old crowns.

He said Washington growers in the 1990s were primarily planting Jersey Giant, Jersey Knight, Mary Washington and Del Monte. They had identical genetics in common and were relatively disease tolerant.

“Now we’re planting anything but those varieties, including Guelph Millennium –which represents more than 50 percent of new plantings – Supreme and Vilmorin varieties,” Schreiber said.

“I’m concerned that I’m encouraging our industry to trade higher yields for more disease-susceptible varieties,” he said.

The new plantings are primarily high density – “25,000 crowns per acre is considered low to medium density.”

In 2014, more than 50 percent of asparagus planted will be direct seeded and is being planted at the rate of 40,000 to 54,000 seeds per acre, he said. More than 150 acres are going in using drip irrigation.

“Our rule is we don’t plant asparagus on ground that has asparagus planted on it – ever,” Schreiber said. “The rule of thumb is you want to be out at least 15 years if you get into a replacement situation. But increasingly, we have growers who have been in it a long time and are getting into replant situations, so we’re doing a replant trial.”

He said the “most controversial” trial has involved white asparagus.

“People don’t like the idea of a white asparagus trial. They have enough problems with labor, and to do research on a crop that requires double the amount of hand labor isn’t what’s attractive to them. That is, until you say, you know, you can get $8 a pound for this. So we’re going to try a white asparagus trial.”

Schreiber said Washington has modeled its research approach after what Michigan has done, including establishing a research farm for asparagus.

A steady decline

At its “zenith” in 1990, the state produced 102 million pounds of asparagus, most of it canned, he said.

“Washington had 30,000 acres, with an average yield of 3,400 pounds per acre and plenty of cheap labor. The average price was 53 cents a pound, with one-third of it being fresh, two-thirds processed. Most of the processed was canned.”

He said prices remained in the mid-50s for about eight years. But the Andean Trade Preference Act, which went into effect in 1991, started taking its toll.

“We had a transition in the early 2000s, when in a 15-month period every canner shut down or moved to Peru. We had the largest processing center in the world in Dayton, Washington. Forty million pounds went through that plant in 50 days. A good day for them was a million and a half pounds.”

He said the plant shut down and moved to Mexico, leading to “a lot of processing acres being plowed under. Some of the young fields were switched to fresh, but the price went down. By 2007, we were down to 30 million pounds, 90 percent fresh.”

He said there are a limited number of asparagus handlers in the state, and no new handlers are coming in due to the low supplies.

“Not one of our handlers has had enough asparagus at any time in the last seven years,” Schreiber said. “There are buyers who want to buy Washington asparagus. We can’t get enough asparagus. We’re trying to hang on to our customers. There’s not just a small shortage, there’s a huge shortage. No growing region is meeting this demand.”

He went into detail on the lack of labor.

“Labor is the kryptonite of our asparagus industry,” Schreiber said. “The only place that has higher labor costs is Quebec, Canada. Our minimum wage is $11.25. The adverse affect wage is $14.50 if you’re an H-2A (user).”

He said the cost of labor is not as big a detriment as the lack of “cutters” in the fields.

“In each of the last two years, 10 percent of our acres got plowed out because they could not get cutters,” he said.

In a survey of intentions to plant in the next two years, Schreiber said, 90 percent of growers indicated the only reason they are not planting is the lack of availability and cost of workers.

Asparagus growers need to pay more to get workers who are turning out in sufficient numbers for the state’s apple and cherry producers, he said.

“We require fewer than 5,000 cutters, and when we need our cutters, there’s minimal competition for workers,” he said. “Part of our problem is caused by our farmers. I told them you guys are the reason you’re having trouble getting workers. The past 10 years, the price paid to our growers has increased 100 percent – it’s doubled. During that time, the price paid to cutters went from 18 cents to 23 or 25 cents a pound. That’s part of the problem – they’re too … cheap. They’re not paying their cutters enough.”

He said it’s also important to “not wait until a week before harvest and put more effort in recruiting our labor.”

Is it all worth the effort? Schreiber thinks it is.

“Washington’s asparagus industry is in a transition again,” he said. “With prices at record highs, 10,000 to 15,000 pounds an acre is where we’re going in Washington. Asparagus needs renewed consideration.”

Through varietal research, German varieties reach 20,000 pounds an acre in research plots. While growers might not be able to hit those targets, “certainly 15,000 is doable with the new planting techniques and new genetics.

“If we have not planted sufficient replacement acres for years, we need to start increasing our replanting. Without a significant increase in two to three years, we’re going to lose our critical mass. Buyers are going to stop calling and we’re going to lose handlers.

“I think our prices have reached a point where it makes sense to plant. I truly do think the labor is out there, but they have to pay more and put more effort into labor recruitment.”

Schreiber anticipates the trend of fewer growers with the ability to produce more asparagus, much of which they will pack on their own, to continue. He said efforts to secure a mechanized asparagus harvester would eventually find success, leading to a further revolution in the structure of the industry.

“Once it gets mechanized, fields are going to get big, price is going to drop and you’re not going to be able to hand harvest asparagus any more. Mechanized growers will get large, they will produce a lot and prices are going to drop, like potatoes.”

He acknowledged ongoing international market pressure from Peru and Mexico, but believes the higher quality of product coming from Michigan, California and Washington in particular can help reduce the impact.

Gary Pullano

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