Asparagus, a crop that's been grown in the Mid-Columbia for more than 100 years, peaked at 30,000 acres in 1990. Today, only about 5,000 acres are left in the state, but that number is growing year by year.
"The crop plummeted in size due to imports from Mexico and Peru, and the high cost and lack of availability of labor," said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission. "Washington state has the highest ag labor costs in the Western Hemisphere. But it appears that we are on the uptick, as more growers are planting asparagus than have in years."
Washington growers produce about 22 million pounds of asparagus a year. The state ranks second in the nation, behind California and ahead of Michigan.
"And there really is not a fourth place," he said.
There are about 100 growers in the state, mainly in Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla, Yakima and Grant counties. About 70 percent -- 4,000 acres -- is grown in Benton and Franklin counties.
One of those growers expanding his asparagus acreage is Bill Middleton of Middleton Six Sons Farms in Pasco. He's been growing asparagus since 1980 and has 300 acres.
"I added 120 acres two years ago and put in a few more this year and plan to put in more next year," Middleton said.
Gary Larsen of Larsen Farms north of Pasco also added 60 acres of asparagus a year ago, bringing his total to 420. And Bryan Lynch, co-owner of LF Farms north of Pasco, has 400 acres planted in the perennial crop.
"Asparagus is a small crop for the state right now, and I'd like to see it be a bigger one here. It does well if you're willing to take the risk. You get a good price. I'd like to see some new growers get into it," Middleton said. In addition to growing it, Middleton also serves as chairman of the Washington Asparagus Commission.
Schreiber said the majority of the state's asparagus crop, 85 percent, goes to the fresh market. The rest is frozen or pickled.
"The farm gate value is $15 million," Schreiber said. "The value of the total industry after packing/processing is $40 million. As far as shipping, we own the Northwest, and from there, we ship eastward. One of our biggest markets is the northeastern U.S."
Middleton sees a bright future for asparagus.
"The worst part is it has to be hand harvested, and there's a shortage of workers right now. It's always a challenge when you have to depend on migrant workers. We were a little short this spring, and I'm not quite sure how to solve that," he said.
"We've tried some machines, but the most promising one the manufacturer discontinued his efforts to perfect it, and the others don't even come close," Middleton said.
Middleton agrees imports from South America and Mexico have cut into the U.S. growers' profits somewhat.
"But they don't really try to compete. We have a better product, and we're local. By the time you add in the cost of air freight and having to heat it up, fumigate it and cool it down again, their costs are up and, their quality is down," Middleton said.
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