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Cold weather still affecting Peruvian asparagus production

by Tim Linden | August 23, 2010
A very cold winter in the Southern Hemisphere country of Peru has hampered asparagus production and should continue to have an impact through the month of September, according to one of the leading importers of the commodity.

Julia Inestroza, marketing director of Gourmet Trading Co., based in Los Angeles, said, "Given the cold weather we've had the last month or so, we predict there will be some residual market effects until mid-September. By October, there should be an abundance of product."

With a projected volume of more than 3.5 million cartons this season, Gourmet Trading imports about 20 percent of the Peruvian asparagus destined for the United States. That figure puts it at or near the top of the volume leader board.

In fact, Chris Martin, president and chief executive officer of Gourmet Trading, laid claim to the top spot with regard to total volume of asparagus. "As the largest year-round asparagus marketer in North America, the item is central to our sales program," he said. "We have seen a dramatic rise in the number of various pack styles we are now supplying our clients, and expect that trend to continue. We are working with our marketing department to tailor both pack styles and promotional programs for our retail and foodservice clients."

The company is adding to its array of offerings this year. Ms. Inestroza said that Gourmet would be debuting some new package configurations this season. "The most exciting is our bagged asparagus program," she said. "We invested in a flow wrap machine and the Stepac Xtend film designed specifically for asparagus. It allows us to pack anything from a 12-ounce to a 2.5-pound bag of asparagus. Since we're using the Xtend film, the shelf life is greatly extended while condensation is virtually eliminated. We are also able to do a tri-color pack with our green, white and purple asparagus, which creates an absolutely stunning pack for both retail and foodservice."

Mr. Martin said that this expanded variety of pack styles is being supported with extra boots on the ground in Peru.

"We have added people to our on-the-ground [quality control] team in Peru and have a much greater one-on-one interaction with our growers and packers," he said. "This year, Gourmet will be operating two new packingsheds in order to handle the increasing volume being produced at our company-owned farms."

One of the unknown factors this year is the transportation piece of the puzzle. Typically about 80 percent of the Peruvian asparagus comes into the United States via air with the other 20 percent traveling by sea.

One air cargo company that accounted for about 20 percent of the air shipments closed its doors earlier this summer causing some importers to look for alternatives.

In addition, one of the major ocean transporters has slowed down the speed at which its fleet travels in an effort to conserve fuel and reduce its carbon foot print.

"We do expect an increase in airfreight rates this year as the economy recovers and there is more regional cargo for the airlines," said Mr. Martin. "This will be one of this year's challenges for the industry."

Peruvian asparagus is shipped to the United States 12 months of the year, but each new season basically begins in the summer with the volume slowly growing until it peaks, typically in October.

Supplies are also very strong in November and usually taper off after the holiday push ends in mid- to late-December. Shipments during the first half of the calendar year continue, but at a much lower level.

Although Peru has had an unseasonably cold winter that hampered the buildup of asparagus supplies, temperatures did start to creep up in August. As July came to a close a month ago, many parts of Peru registered their lowest temperatures in 40 years, with readings below freezing in many parts of the country. But with August coming to a close, temperatures in the nation's capital of Lima were in the mid-60s, which is in the normal range.