California asparagus acreage may be stabilizing
by Brian Gaylord | February 10, 2009
According to Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission in Stockton, CA, the past decade has been a period of adjustment for the state's asparagus industry.
"Our supply is in line with demand during our season," Ms. Angulo told The Produce News Feb. 2. "Mexico has increased acreage in the last few years." California is in line with supply and demand not only in the United States but overseas as well, Ms. Angulo said.
"California still has intrinsic value beyond supply and demand," she said, adding that the state's standards of production and food safety are among the more stringent.
Ms. Angulo said that when she gets an e-mail query on the California Asparagus Commission web site (www.calasparagus.com), she follows up with a response. "One [e-mail] from one person does mean a lot," Ms. Angulo said. "I try to learn why they buy California asparagus."
The California Asparagus Commission's budget comes from collecting assessments from its members, which was 0.008 cents per pound in 2008, which amounts to 25 cents on a 30-pound crate. The commission also receives matching federal funds.
Ms. Angulo referred to the commission's budget as "slim," and it's no wonder. In 2000, California boasted 36,000 acres of asparagus, but that number has dwindled to 13,000 acres in 2009.
California asparagus acreage appears to have stabilized, however. "The trend down will slow," Ms. Angulo said. "I don't think the industry will face significant reductions."
Ms. Angulo said that she doesn't downplay the pain and hardship that individual growers who no longer grow asparagus in California have endured. But as an industry, California asparagus is "leaner and meaner," and that's a good thing, she said. One of the benefits for the industry is closer contact and connection on food-safety issues, she said.
Ms. Angulo said that while there is a lot of apprehension in agriculture during the current tough economic times, the California asparagus industry is upbeat.
"The growers still believe," Ms. Angulo said. "They are really committed."
To work within the confines of a small budget, the California Asparagus Commission has focused more heavily on placing content on its web site and has pulled back on creating marketing materials for retailers. Ms. Angulo serves as point person for the web site, deciding what content to use. The web site includes recipes, nutritional information and a broad array of industry information.
"Retailers are creating their own [point-of-purchase] materials," she said. The harvest for California asparagus primarily is March through May, which is the period of time when California dominates the market, Ms. Angulo said. Mexico's prime harvest season typically runs from December through February. The asparagus harvest in Peru is at its height from June through August.
"Mexico tries to stay in production until the Easter push," Ms. Angulo said. In 2008, the California Asparagus Commission launched an ongoing program for foodservice that Ms. Angulo described as "phenomenal."
Steve Couture, a partner in Couture Farms in Huron, CA, said that the company should have good asparagus supplies for Easter. Couture Farms grows asparagus on the west side of the central San Joaquin Valley. Mr. Couture said that asparagus should be "promotable under $1.99 per pound," and that supply "has not been great out of Mexico."
It has been tough for California asparagus growers to sustain profits, said Mr. Couture, who hopes to fare better with the organic asparagus that the company has available this year.
"We've added 80 [organic] acres," he said. Porterville, CA-based Homegrown Organic Farms will be the marketing arm for Couture Farms' organic asparagus.
The cost of labor is much cheaper in Mexico, which makes Mexico a major competitor in the early spring, Mr. Couture said. But he said that he is unsure whether consumers will be tuned in to country-of-origin labeling. Another concern for growers this season is tightening water restrictions, which are perhaps most pronounced on the west side of the central San Joaquin Valley.
"In the last two months, there's been no firm water supply," Mr. Couture said. As a result, growers have to decide how much of the asparagus crop to harvest in the spring. Couture Farms will be forced to consider how many acre-feet of water to dedicate to its 2010 crop.
"We'll make that [water use] call on May 1 or so as we get close to the end of our harvest," Mr. Couture said, adding that water problems are taking a huge toll on communities and families in the San Joaquin Valley.
California's major production regions are the Stockton-Sacramento Delta, the San Joaquin Valley and the Salinas Valley.