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Washington asparagus farmers gearing up for harvest

Washington’s asparagus harvest is about to kick off in the next few weeks. Gary Larsen, chairman of the state asparagus commission, is hoping for higher yields and prices.
Matthew Weaver

Capital Press

Published on April 5, 2018 9:48AM

Washington’s asparagus harvest is almost ready to start, says Gary Larsen, a Pasco, Wash., farmer and chairman of the Washington Asparagus Commission.

Washington Asparagus Commission

Washington’s asparagus harvest is almost ready to start, says Gary Larsen, a Pasco, Wash., farmer and chairman of the Washington Asparagus Commission.

Cold weather is stalling Washington’s asparagus harvest.

“We’ve got all these little purple heads sticking up, they’re all wanting to grow, but we’re just not getting the heat units to get them up and get them going,” said Gary Larsen, chairman of the Washington Asparagus Commission and a Pasco-area farmer.

Larsen and another farmer are ready to start cutting, he said, but with higher minimum wages, growers are hesitant to send workers into the fields when there’s not much crop to cut.

The crop fared well over a mild winter, he said.

“It actually would have been nicer to have a little bit of cold weather and maybe get rid of some of those bugs,” he said. “Asparagus makes it through the winter pretty well.”

Insects should not be an issue this early, he said. Asparagus beetles could arrive with warmer weather, then blow out with the first wind, he said.

Right now, asparagus sold in grocery stores and restaurants is likely from Mexico or Peru, Larsen said. Mexico is just completing its harvest.

“In say, two weeks, if you’re not seeing Washington asparagus in the stores, you’re getting old-crop Mexican grass, so be careful,” he said.

Washington grows 4,000 to 4,500 acres of asparagus, acreage is increasing, Larsen said. He estimated 300 acres will convert to organic in the state in three years.

Roughly 45 to 60 farmers raise asparagus.

Larsen has grown asparagus since 1985. He raises it as his primary crop on 325 acres.

Larsen said he enjoys working with the people who cut the crop during harvest season.

“They’re fun to have around — when the season’s over, it’s just too much quiet,” he said.

Larsen aims to reach a yield of 15,000 pounds of asparagus per acre. The state’s average yield is 6,000 to 7,000 pounds, but he usually gets 9,000 to 10,000 pounds per acre.

“I think that 15,000 pounds is within grasp,” he said.

Prices remain a question mark, Larsen said. Overproduction in Mexico put prices at 99 cents to $1.49 per pound.

“Hopefully we don’t see that because at 99 cents in the stores, we’re more than likely losing money,” he said.

For farmers to break even, they need to receive about 80 cents per pound, he said. How much they receive depends on whether they pack the asparagus themselves or sell it to a shipper-packer.

Typically, 55 percent of what a farmer receives goes to pay the cutters, he said, and other expenses come out of the remaining 45 percent.

In his case, if he sells his crop for 80 cents a pound wholesale it will often sell at retail for $2 or more.

“It’s getting pretty rough out there,” he said. “Every time we increase the minimum wage or paid leave, although it’s good for the people, it’s not good for the owner.”


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