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California asparagus producers look to maximize opportunity

by Brian Gaylord | March 12, 2009
Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission in Stockton, CA, said that March through May "should be the highest-quality [asparagus] product available."

There's no time better than the present to consume California asparagus, Ms. Angulo said. California asparagus is one of the "few featured commodities" on store shelves in its relatively narrow time window.

In 2008, the California Asparagus Commission launched a foodservice initiative aimed at helping to increase sales of California asparagus. The commission has worked with restaurant chains, universities and institutions to promote asparagus and get California asparagus on menus. The brunt of those efforts have been from "Colorado and heading west," and has been very successful, Ms. Angulo said.

At various points over the years, California asparagus has gotten positive television exposure from such celebrities as Martha Stewart, Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray, Ms. Angulo said. In the past, the commission had been involved in coordinating field tours of California asparagus with the Culinary Institute of America.

The commission has developed asparagus recipes including asparagus straws, developed last year as part of its foodservice initiative.

On the retail front, the commission has been involved in providing point-of- purchase materials. The commission determined that retailers were using the materials and tailoring them for their own use.

"We're streamlining our materials," Ms. Angulo said. The commission will continue to provide point-of-purchase components that include photos, recipes and display guides. Ms. Angulo said that the commission cannot produce exclusive materials for individual retailers, but it encourages retailers to make known their specific needs so that the commission can help advise them.

One of the strengths of asparagus is its versatility, Ms. Angulo said. For example, it can be served as part of a main course or as a side dish. Asparagus is a good item to introduce to children because they can "dip it and eat it with their fingers," Ms. Angulo said.

California asparagus acreage has been dropping in recent years but appears to have stabilized, Ms. Angulo said. In 2000, California boasted 36,000 acres of asparagus; that number has dwindled to 13,000 acres in 2009. The commission's budget comes from collecting assessments from its members. The assessment was $0.008 per pound in 2008, amounting to 25 cents on a 30-pound crate. The commission also receives matching federal funds.

To work within the confines of a small budget, the California Asparagus Commission has focused more heavily on placing content on its web site ( Ms. Angulo serves as point person for the web site, which includes recipes, nutritional information and a broad array of industry information.

Mexico has increased acreage in the last few years and California's acreage is in line with supply and demand not only in the United States but overseas as well, Ms. Angulo said. Per-capita consumption of asparagus in the United States has been increasing incrementally in the past few years, she said. "[Asparagus] is healthy, easy and economical," Ms. Angulo said. The goal of California asparagus growers is to provide asparagus that is consistent, high- quality and of uniform size, she said.

Asparagus is a fairly delicate item, and the commission and California asparagus producers have addressed that. "We put energy into the packaging infrastructure," Ms. Angulo said, adding that asparagus travels well in mixed loads.

Several years back, the commission enlisted the University of California- Davis to conduct a study on California asparagus that provided post-harvest recommendations for safe handling of the product "from A to Z," Ms. Angulo said.

Steve Couture, a partner in Couture Farms in Huron, CA, said that California asparagus is a "symbol of spring. California asparagus has a solid place in the market and in the consumer's mind."

In the spring California asparagus is the "freshest, highest-quality asparagus all year," Mr. Couture said, adding that it has "intuitive, instinctual appeal."

Asparagus producers such as Mr. Couture will again seek to satisfy retail customers since supermarkets "can't allow themselves to be out of asparagus in the spring," he said. For domestic consumption, part of the marketing work surrounding asparagus has fallen to supermarkets, Mr. Couture said.

Asparagus is a very healthy vegetable, which is high in vitamin B and folic acid. Pound for pound, it is a fairly high-priced food item and supply is difficult to predict, Mr. Couture said.

Demand for asparagus climbs considerably around Easter; asparagus may have sold for around 99 cents a pound in early February, but it may fetch closer to $2.99 per pound the week before Easter.

"[Asparagus] producers need to keep the supply moving," Mr. Couture said. More stores may want asparagus at Easter, but producers "can't generate more supply," he said.

Asparagus is pretty delicate and has a fairly short shelf life. Under optimum conditions, asparagus can run for 14 days from the time of harvest to the time of deterioration, Mr. Couture said. Under less than optimum conditions, asparagus may last for 10 days, which can boil down to only two or three days on a supermarket shelf.

Mr. Couture said that asparagus growers feel that produce managers are knowledgeable about how fragile asparagus is.

"Restaurants have always been an important part of asparagus sales," Mr. Couture said, adding that he is trying to get restaurants to move up to a thicker stem.

New to Couture Farms this year is organic asparagus, of which it has about 80 acres. Porterville, CA-based Homegrown Organic Farms will be the marketing arm for Couture Farms' organic asparagus.

Mr. Couture said that it is challenging to expand into organic asparagus but that he is "comfortable about the future of organics."

Organic asparagus typically sells for $1 or $2 more a pound than conventional asparagus. Mr. Couture said that he believes organic farming is healthier for the soil and good for the overall health of the planet.