Profitable crop depends on steady supply of workers
By DAN WHEAT
PASCO, Wash. -- Good money awaits growers in asparagus but it's hard to get farmers interested because pickers are hard to find, an industry expert says.
Demand is high and supply is short largely because Peruvian asparagus is on the decline, said Alan Schreiber, administrator of the Washington Asparagus Commission.
"No one among Washington asparagus handlers (buyers) has enough," he said. "We are short, short, short."
With new varieties, growers can get over 10,000 pounds per acre in a season, and at last year's average of 90 cents a pound that's $9,000 per acre per season, Schreiber said. That compares with recent norms of 6,000 pounds per acre at 45 to 77 cents per pound.
U.S. asparagus production was decimated in the 1990s and early 2000s -- dropping from 244 million pounds in 1990 to 80 million in 2010 -- because of the Andean Trade Preferences Act of 1990, which was later replaced by the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement.
The measures and U.S. resources to establish asparagus as a crop in Peru were intended to wean South American countries away from producing cocoa leaves for cocaine. But the drug production continued while U.S. asparagus production for domestic and foreign markets was crippled, Schreiber said. Washington's 55-million-pound canned asparagus industry was wiped out. Its fresh sector suffered but remains, as do limited pickled and frozen processing.
But within the last three years a corner has been turned, Schreiber said.
Asparagus fields take two years to establish and produce for 15 years. Peru is cycling out, replacing old asparagus with avocados, mangos and table grapes.
"It's not a dramatic decline, but a gradual erosion," Schreiber said.
Supply is now the lowest it's ever been. Prices are high but Washington growers are reluctant to take advantage of the opportunity because workers are scarce, he said.
"Last year we were short workers and 15 percent of the acres that should have been harvested were plowed under because we couldn't get enough workers," he said.
Asparagus grows rapidly. It takes one worker per 2 acres to keep up with harvest. Fields are picked 65 times over 70 days. Washington's harvest is in April and May.
"We would like more people to get into asparagus but you need to have decent money to invest, 50 acres minimum and willingness to attract, hold and manage labor," Schreiber said.
A third-generation Pasco grower, Keith Middleton, said Middleton Six Sons Farms has been increasing its acreage in recent years. The Middletons will plant about 80 additional acres this year, bringing their total to 380. Middleton said he knows of about 250 additional acres being planted by other growers, some who get nursery stock from him.
"Labor is our main concern," he said. "A lot of people aren't planting because of the shortage."
The Middletons normally peak at 100 pickers and were 15 to 20 pickers short last season. This year, they began recruiting earlier. They pay above the average of 22 to 24 cents per pound. A fast picker can harvest 450 pounds in a day.
Middleton gets local workers who move into cherries and apples after finishing asparagus.
Hiring H-2A foreign guestworkers, he said, would be a last resort because of the expense and regulations of the program.