Asparagus growers battle labor challenges

Photos courtesy of the California Asparagus Commission.
California fresh asparagus is high in quality, but because it’s easy to ship, it’s easier for overseas growers to overwhelm the market.

As Eddie Zuckerman would put it, asparagus is a wonderful crop to grow, but a tough one to sell right now. What is especially intriguing is that the vegetable is becoming a year-round product for the local kitchen. It is frustrating for growers, however, who see bunches of asparagus all around them, but are becoming less able to afford to grow it.

What Zuckerman is alluding to is the situation where asparagus, a labor-intensive crop that costs so much to harvest and pack, has drastically declined in acreage in California. The state used to be the asparagus heartland, but has lost two-thirds of its ground because of competition from countries where labor is cheap and plentiful. Nowhere is that more obvious than on Zuckerman’s Stockton farm, where the family once grew some 6,000 acres, and now is down to just 360.

Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission, says acreage in the state has dropped from 36,000 acres in 1999 to less than 15,000 acres this summer. Asparagus is a cyclical crop, she says, but there has been a decline of 15 to 20 percent annually. There was a plowdown of significant acreage this spring because of a glut of Mexican-stored asparagus sent into the United States after the Mexican season had ended. As an illustration of the trials besetting California growers, Angulo points out that USDA market price for that imported crop was about $18 per 28-pound crate.

“Break-even price for California growers is in the $28 to $32 range,” Angulo says, and that shows how wacky the market is at times. That was just after Easter, and the effect on U.S. growers was “devastating.” A huge volume of cheap asparagus came into the country just when California growers were beginning their harvest, and instead of getting a boost in price for fresh product, they suffered a price collapse. She points out that even at $32 a crate, growers don’t have a healthy margin.

“They’ve taken a loss for so many years that they thought they would plow their fields [this spring],” Angulo says of Californians. That happened to some unknown degree, but then prices rebounded back close to $40 for a while before settling in at the $35 to $38 range. She says it is difficult to determine exactly how many acres the state are still growing because everybody knows farmers who have taken out asparagus acreage, but nobody knows how much.

The labor required to harvest and pack asparagus, along with establishment costs, make the crop seven times more expensive to grow in California than in Mexico. Establishing a mature asparagus crop requires about three years and $2,500 per acre in California.

Angulo says that asparagus is a crop that lends itself to easy shipping, especially by air freight, and when countries that grow it cheaply disrupt the American market (California grows about 70 percent of the U.S. crop, with Washington and Michigan growing the bulk of the rest), it creates an untenable situation here. To illustrate the scenario, a once-robust Imperial Valley crop in the southeastern part of the state has diminished to about 500 acres. The early desert harvest couldn’t compete with the coinciding Mexican produce.

Angulo says that the California crop is highest in quality to the fresh market consumer because it is closest to the marketplace. Hybrid varieties that have a tight tip ship well, and in good years local growers can export to other countries, such as those in Europe. The California season runs from April to late May, and then the Michigan and Washington crop competes during the summer with the imports from Peru, the other big importer. Mexico starts harvesting in late November and runs until Easter.

Zuckerman is a diversified grower who farms about 7,000 acres, with 2,000 of that in turfgrass sod. He grows asparagus on the light peat soils of the San Joaquin Delta, and recalls the huge acreages his father and grandfather grew. It is extremely frustrating to see asparagus become a year-round commodity while his own place in the system deteriorates.

“I think the story, a lot of it, is about the demise of the asparagus industry,” he says, noting that NAFTA “cut the legs out” from under the American growers as overseas growers found an advantage through cheap production. He says another factor is that the American government encourages South American countries to grow vegetable crops instead of narcotic crops, and even the cost of transporting those crops to the United States doesn’t make them as expensive to grow as the American crop. Zuckerman says it costs him seven times as much to grow and harvest asparagus as it does a Mexican grower.

Asparagus is an expensive crop to bring to maturity, Zuckerman says, with two years and about $2,500 worth of inputs required before the first harvest. A nursery crop is grown from seed the first year, and the resulting crowns transplanted for another year of growth on beds 5 to 6 feet apart at 12,000 crowns per acre. A small cutting of shoots can be taken the third year, and good harvests can be expected through year seven. Around the ninth year, the crop must be rotated out. Even though it is a perennial crop, it requires nutrition and cultivation every year.

The harvest, sorting and packing are where American growers have a distinct disadvantage, Zuckerman says, because it is all done by hand. Mechanical harvest has been a dream for years, but development of that machinery is still not in the reality stage. Even then, machinery is expensive. He could get mechanical sorting machines for his packing shed that would reduce labor, but it is also expensive.

It’s a shame that asparagus has ceased to be economical for him, Zuckerman says, because as a crop it fits nicely into his farm scheme. He uses his shed to pack potatoes and certified seed potatoes, and the early asparagus gave him a long packing season. Its loss makes his operation less viable, and some of the land he’s taking out of asparagus is going into field corn and olive trees.

He has leased his asparagus land and turned the crop over to another packer/shipper, Mission Avocados, which has asparagus interests in foreign countries and uses his crop to fill in. Zuckerman still does the sorting and packing for Mission Avocados. It’s a strategy that keeps him from ripping out all of his crop. He would like to see a tariff imposed on imports such as asparagus that require a lot of hand labor and put American growers at a disadvantage.

Angulo says that the commission is researching several measures that could give California growers some relief. Among those would be a way to redefine “dumping” in the NAFTA language and introduce a provision enabling the U.S. government to halt imports that are below the cost of production. Also, Angulo says that banding the California Asparagus Commission together with other such commissions of seasonal and perishable crops could give them some clout, and they could change some of NAFTA’s dispute resolution language and work through the International Trade Commission to examine the place asparagus occupies in the world agricultural economy.

However, no resolution of these issues seems close to fruition, Angulo says. These are in fact all old issues that come up in different guises every year—and, every year, California loses more asparagus acreage and growers.

One promising aspect, and another type of asparagus enterprise, is the one that Zuckerman’s brother, Roscoe, has created. Roscoe has developed a market for the crop through farmers’ markets and other retail outlets that operate outside the larger asparagus scenario.

He has 80 acres of asparagus, and he sells about half of his product on the normal wholesale market. The other half is marketed through direct sales. He and his employees go to about 10 farmers’ markets each week in Southern California and the Bay Area. Those premium prices allow him to continue in this business.

“I’m not as subject to market trends as the others,” he says of other asparagus growers. He markets his product as “Delta asparagus,” which is grown on the natural peat soils in the Stockton area and is known throughout his trade region as a sweet, high-quality product. He has other challenges such as travel costs, and he still has to put a lot of money into harvesting and packing.

In fact, in an odd twist of fate, as acreage declines and the state’s harvest decreases, Roscoe’s crop becomes even more in demand as his brother Eddie’s declines. As the large growers plow down more and more acreage and lose wholesale clout, local Delta asparagus gains in retail price and local exposure. It’s just one of the vagaries of a weird and deteriorating crop dynamic.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.