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Washington asparagus growers off to a strong start

Washington asparagus growers have begun their 2014 season with a bang. "We had our first grower start the asparagus harvest on March 31, Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission, told The Produce News in mid-April. "We're off to a strong start."

Warm weather has favored production. Schreiber defined the extent of this strong start by saying that one of the state's growers had already cut 10 percent of its expected annual volume in the first seven days of activity.OpenerShotWashington asparagus producers are anticipating a crop in the range of 19-20 million pounds, up from 2013 production. (Photo Courtesy of Gourmet Trading Co.)

"By April 4-6, everyone was cutting," he went on to say.

The state's grower base has remained relatively unchanged from the 2013 season. Last year, growers produced a total of 16 million pounds of asparagus, and Schreiber expects 2014 volume will range between 19-20 million pounds.

He said labor pools are always tight, and concern about an adequate labor force comes up every year. Looking at the 2014 season, he went on to say, "Right now, packers and growers feel they have adequate labor. A few growers may be short. But they're OK. Nobody has a surplus of labor. We're right on the edge of having enough workers."

Producers continue to make their best guestimates as to the labor they will need — and the labor that will be available — as they make decisions whether to stop planting asparagus or cut down on planted acreage.

In 2014, Washington's asparagus growers are moving into their season with relatively good market prices. "Overall, the price is trending up," Schreiber commented.

Several factors are at play here. "This is the worst season they've had in Mexico," he stated. As Mexico exited the market, domestic production ramped up. "California is in peak production," he went on to say. "The supply is not going to increase." And Michigan growers sustained several inches of snow during mid-April, which will likely delay their entry into the marketplace by two weeks, thereby compressing their marketing window.

Temperate weather in Washington translated to an earlier start date for producers.

Schreiber expected a softening of pricing from the Wednesday before Easter to the Wednesday following Easter. Once this short window passed, he anticipated that pricing will move upward. According to Schreiber, asparagus prices have continued to increase during the past 11 years.

Production dynamics may be shifting in the industry. Schreiber said some of the shift can be attributed to labor issues, while others relate to crop productivity. "We have two classes of growers," he explained. The first group includes existing growers who think they can secure the labor needed to harvest additional acreage. "In 2014, we had more non-asparagus growers getting into asparagus," he said of the second class of grower.

Historically, asparagus — which is a perennial — reaches full production after a five-year maturation period. After transfer from a greenhouse, asparagus crowns are planted in the field, and the waiting game begins. Smaller harvests begin in the third year.

A new system being utilized is direct seeding, which allows growers to plant directly into the ground. As a result, light harvests are realized in the second production year.

"It's catching on like fire," Schreiber commented.

Another trend is the potential shift to newer varieties that yield higher plant counts, facilitate higher density plantings and greater yields. Schreiber is conducting research to determine just how successful these newer varieties will be if the shift is made.

Research results are promising. "The research is paying off. We are going to double our yields," he said of preliminary results. The bottom-line positive is that "everyone, including workers, will be making more money."

His optimistic stance is tempered with the knowledge that plant vigor and disease resistance must be fully understood. "Some of these varieties are more susceptible to disease," he explained. And so comes the tradeoff: "Are we trading higher yields for more pest problems?"

Federal funds have been allocated to monitor grower trials to help answer this important question. As difficult as the balancing act appears, Schreiber is undaunted. "There are tools in place to monitor this," he stated. "It would just require more monitoring."