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Lack of supply creates hot asparagus market

by Tim Linden | May 20, 2010
A shortage of supply has created an asparagus market that is about as hot as anyone can remember — and there is no expectation that it will change any time soon.

While the prices might not continue to top $50 for a 28-pound box as they were doing the third week of May, industry experts are saying it could be well into summer before supply and demand get back in harmony.

Weather in virtually all parts of the country is the main factor, as it has reduced the spring crops from the heavy-producing states of Washington and California, and also delayed production in the lighter-volume regions including Michigan and New Jersey.

On the international front, Mexico's winter crop is finished, and the spring crop from central Mexico is still several weeks from producing good volume. Peru is sending some supplies to the United States, but not enough to fill demand.

James Paul, director of sales for Stockton, CA-based Greg Paul Produce, who also serves as sales director for Altar Produce in Calexico, CA, which specializes in Mexican asparagus, said that it is a simple case of demand exceeding supply.

Sharon Heer, sales manager of Rasmussen Marketing Inc. in Yakima, WA, echoed those sentiments, saying, "There just isn’t any grass. In the 20 years I have been doing this, I’ve never seen anything like this."

She continued, “We have two sheds, and we are only running about once every three days. I’ve told retailers there just isn’t going to be anything to promote for the rest of the season.”

Ms. Heer expects Washington to limp through June with sporadic production at best. “Even if it heats up, I think the asparagus spears will poke their heads out of the ground and not like that any better.”

She added that it has been a trifecta of bad weather problems that have caused this situation: a mild winter without enough cold to give the crop the dormancy it needs; an early spring that resulted in the plants using a lot of energy to emerge early; and a much colder-than-normal late spring that has caused growers to lose production and drastically reduce yields.

Ms. Heer said that most growers had to reduce their fields to the nubs in May because of the weather. “That knocked us out for two weeks in mid-May, which is usually our best producing time. And now there are two more weeks of rain and cold forecast. I just don’t see this getting any better.”

Speaking of the difficulties Washington growers have had, Mr. Paul likened an asparagus plant to a car battery, saying that that starting and stopping is tough on the plant just as it is on a car battery. “You need to let the car run for a while to recharge the battery. That is the same thing that has to happen with asparagus plants, and they just haven’t had it this year.”

In California, Mr. Paul said that weather has played a role in reducing yields this year, but there has also been a tremendous drop in acreage over the past 10 years, which has reduced the potential for domestic supplies.

He said that the ever-increasing length of the Mexican winter deal as well as high labor costs in California have reduced the acreage this year to about 7,500 acres. “I don’t have the figures in front of me, but I’d say over the past 10 or 15 years, we had double, triple or even four times that much acreage,” he said.

The longtime asparagus salesman, who grew up in Stockton running through his father Greg Paul’s asparagus acreage, explained that the life of an asparagus plant is about a dozen years. While many California fields have gone past their prime in the last decade, growers have tended to replant with less acreage. He said high prices paid for grain crops and processing tomatoes in recent years have hastened the decline in asparagus acreage as growers switched to crops that could give them immediate returns. And it is not a crop where one can note a good market and jump into it quickly.

“Even if you saw this hot market and planted 2,000 acres, it would be three years before you had any volume,” he said.

Consequently, while Mr. James won’t predict that next spring would bring the same high prices, he does think that a demand-exceeds-supply situation would not be surprising during the late spring over at least the next several years.

Ms. Heer said that Peruvian asparagus shippers are undoubtedly doing everything possible to increase their supplies to take advantage of this hot market.

Some Peruvian shippers send product to the United States all year round, but volume starts to increase in June and July with the peak shipping period being late summer and early fall.

Mr. James told The Produce News May 19 that California asparagus was in the $50-$55 range for a 28-pound carton of “standard” size grass, while Ms. Heer indicated a slightly higher price.