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Asparagus growers in the state of Washington, which produces approximately 40 percent of all domestically grown product, are set to start cutting grass in mid-April. Alan Schreiber, administrator of the Washington Asparagus Commission in Eltopia, WA, expects production to be 28 million pounds for 2009.

In all, there are 160 growers involved with fresh asparagus this year. Dr. Schreiber said that 8,000 acres are in production this season, a number comparable to 2008. Production acreage is located in the Columbia Basin, the Yakima Valley and the Walla Walla area. The acreage is characterized by mineral-rich volcanic soil, mountain-fed irrigation streams, warm days which promote vigorous growth and cool nights which give Washington asparagus its premium flavor and color.

According to the commission's website, "Washington fresh market has a reputation worldwide as a premium product. Washington takes great pride in its high standards for quality asparagus. In fact, the 'Washington Extra Fancy' label exceeds the standards set by the government for U.S. No. 1 asparagus."

Last season, cold weather shortened the production window for Washington asparagus. Asked if Mother Nature is being kinder in 2009, he replied, "It has been really cold, but it is too early to tell if this will delay the beginning of the season." Asparagus continues to be cut into mid-June.

Dr. Schreiber said that Washington asparagus is marketed globally. Domestically, product is marketed throughout the country. "Our asparagus tends to follow the population centers, so our biggest markets are the East Coast, particularly the Northeast," he stated. "But our asparagus goes everywhere. Canada is a big market until they start their season. We also ship to Japan, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and other EU countries."

Dr. Schreiber was asked about the impact that Peruvian asparagus has on domestic product. "Peru exports asparagus into the U.S. 12 months of a year, so they are a factor and we have to live with it," he replied. "However, Peru ships the least amount of the year during our season. Unless our price is unusually high, we expect they will not send a lot of fresh asparagus in this year as freight costs still gives us a price advantage."

Mexican imports do not affect marketing for fresh Washington asparagus. "Mexico is out of the marketplace by the time we enter," he said. "For us, they are not a problem. For California, they are a curse."

As Dr. Schreiber described it, pricing is "the $64 million question," adding, "If I had to guess, I would say it would be similar to last year. But it is a fool's game to guess." Similarly, he said it is hard to gauge the effect of the dampening national economy when it comes to retail sales. "How is the state of the current economy affecting asparagus sales and consumption? We do not know," he said. "We are wondering about this ourselves."

Research data continue to support the positive health attributes associated with fresh asparagus consumption. Asparagus is the leading natural source for folacin and glutathione, two nutrients which fight disease and promote body health. Asparagus also provides 60 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommendation for folacin, which is important for the formation of blood cells and which helps prevent birth defects. Glutathione, also found in asparagus, has been shown to be one of the more potent anti- carcinogens and anti-oxidants found within the body. According to the commission's website, "Of all foods tested, none was higher in glutathione than asparagus."

(For more on Northwest spring and summer produce, see the April 6 issue of The Produce News.)