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Delicate harvest in crisis

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Driving by an asparagus field, you'd never guess it was such a demanding crop. In fact, you might not even know it was planted at all. If you didn't know better, all you'd see would be acres of deeply plowed earth. Because the spears need soft earth and no competition from other plants, even during the peak of the season, asparagus fields tend to look like they've never even been planted.

And the way things are going, who knows in a year or two whether they will be? The California asparagus industry, which grows 80% of the nation's fresh asparagus, is in crisis, upended by the gales of global trade. After a string of money-losing harvests, farmers have slashed acreage by a third in the last three years, from 36,000 acres to 24,000, and there is no end in sight.

Families that have been growing asparagus for four generations are facing the possibility they may have to get out of the business altogether. A historic piece of California's farming culture is slipping away.

At the root of the problem is the nature of asparagus itself, which demands as much hand-cultivation and as careful harvesting as the grapes for some rare wine. See for yourself. Stop and get out of the car. Walk over and look closely at the tops of the furrows and you will see the tips of asparagus popping through that bare ground like fat twigs. Asparagus spears grow from clumps of roots called crowns that are buried four to six inches below the surface.

They grow amazingly fast. When the temperature gets into the 70s and 80s, asparagus can shoot up as much as seven inches in 24 hours. Early in the season, say late February to early March, farmers can get by with cutting a field every other day. The rest of the time, it must be done daily, or the spear tips will feather into ferns.

As vigorous as it is, asparagus has a fragile side too. Anything that gets between a spear tip and the air can deform it. The soil needs to be extremely soft and loose. Even the slightest crust can cause the spears to bend.

A recent study commissioned by the California Asparagus Commission spells out the implications: Every year, every furrow in every asparagus field has to be worked 15 to 20 times — and that doesn't include the up to three months of daily harvesting.

The human touchAlthough many crops can be picked by machine in one pass, asparagus must be harvested by hand and in repeated passes.

Workers walk the furrows, judging each spear to see whether it is long enough to be cut that day. To be considered, a spear must be at least 9 inches long. Thrusting an 18-inch blade that looks something like an overgrown weeder deep into the top of the ridge, workers cut off the spear just above the roots, but without damaging the crown. This takes skill.

"A good crew will do more than cut, it will manage the field," says Marc Marchini, a third-generation asparagus farmer and chairman of the California Asparagus Commission. "They'll cut just the long spears and leave the rest for the next day or the day after."

The bottom line for all that handwork, farmers say, is that labor accounts for 75% to 90% of the cost of growing asparagus.

Even though field workers don't earn much for such hard work — growers say top wages at the peak of the season are $75 to $80 a day — it is still far more than what is paid in Mexico and Peru, the United States' two largest competitors.

As a result, imports of fresh asparagus have soared 40% in the last five years, while the average amount earned by California farmers has plummeted. In 2002, farmers averaged only 80 cents a pound for fresh asparagus, well below the $1 a pound they say they need just to break even.

Particularly hard hit has been the Imperial Valley, where the crop has virtually disappeared. Once the first to get their asparagus to market and reap the high early season prices, Imperial Valley farmers now see those rewards go to farmers just across the border in Mexico. Where 5,500 acres of asparagus were planted in the area two years ago, fewer than 1,000 remain.

"The Imperial Valley is just a microcosm of what is happening to us, less dramatically, in the rest of the state," says Marchini.

"I have to be honest. I'm not sure the industry will ever come back to anywhere near where it was before. There is just too much competition. What we're trying to do now is just maintain our niche. The growers that can survive and ride this downfall will probably do OK, eventually."

Eddie Zuckerman, president and chief executive of Zuckerman-Heritage, one of the state's largest growers, says that his company has already cut asparagus acreage nearly in half and that if the market doesn't turn around soon, it will slash even more.

"We've already cut our asparagus acreage from 1,100 acres three years ago to 600," he says. "If the deal doesn't turn around this year, we'll probably go down to just a couple of hundred acres."

Zuckerman says total acreage for the state may have to go below 20,000 before asparagus becomes profitable again.

A historic cropThe California asparagus industry is centered in the peaty soil of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta area — the same black-earthed islands where it was born 150 years ago.

The first important asparagus plantings in the state were made in the 1850s, largely in new land reclaimed from the delta by dredging. Thanks to the deep-water port on the San Joaquin River in Stockton, the industry thrived, shipping crops 90 miles to San Francisco by sailing ship and stern-wheeler.

For most of its history, the emphasis was on asparagus destined for canning — to the majority of Americans, the vegetable was an exotic, used only in composed salads, much like hearts of palm. There were as many as 10 canneries operating in the area in the 1920s.

Canning had many advantages, flavor aside. Most notably, it extended the selling season for asparagus beyond the narrow three or four months usually allotted by nature. At its peak in the 1950s, the delta boasted more than 75,000 acres of asparagus — more than three times what is grown in the entire state today — and more than half of that was canned.

Up until the 1950s, much of the asparagus grown in the delta was white — the canneries paid a premium for it. Today, the conventional wisdom among farmers is that the cost of production is too high (more than double that of green asparagus) and the market of knowledgeable white asparagus fanciers is too small for growing it to be practical.

"When my grandfather started, it was all white asparagus," says Marchini. "And when my dad retired, he decided that's what he wanted to do. So we set him up with a small patch and he lined up a contract with a gourmet store in San Francisco to buy it.

"The first day, he sold 15 or 20 crates," says Marchini, whose company usually packs 800 to 1,000 crates of green asparagus a day in season. "The next day, maybe 20 to 25. The third day, maybe 30. By the time we got to the fourth and fifth days, the guy we were selling to called and said, 'Stop, you're flooding the market.' "

One of the few growers trying white asparagus today is Zuckerman-Heritage, which sells it only through its small farmers market operation, along with green asparagus and potatoes. (Zuckerman's big moneymaker, though, is turf grass — the same folks who grow those perfect tiny potatoes for which you pay so dearly at the Beverly Hills farmers market also grow the sod for San Francisco's new PacBell [SBC] Park baseball stadium.)

Asparagus only begins to send up spears when the ground is sufficiently warm. In the San Joaquin Delta, that's usually late February to early March. It's over when the warm weather causes the spears to turn to ferns too quickly, usually around the end of May.

Traditionally, California farmers have angled to get in the first crop, since that was the one for which asparagus-starved consumers were willing to pay the most. But with Mexico and Peru now in the picture, the market has already been flooded with asparagus by the time even the earliest California fields begin to produce.

Because of Peru's mild climate, it can produce asparagus nearly year-round, and that has exacerbated California farmers' problems.

"We used to pretty much control the season from March up until June, but that is shrinking more and more," says Marchini. "Asparagus is a wonderful crop, but the biggest problem we have is we're getting squeezed. Our little window is shrinking."

Of course, good cooks know that the best-quality ingredients are always the ones found closest to home. Out-of-season imported produce — whether it is Chilean peaches in December or Peruvian asparagus in August — can't compare in quality, and it decreases the appreciation for home-grown.

"Because of the proliferation of acreage offshore, I think the nation's appetite has become sated," Zuckerman says. "Asparagus used to be something you only ate in the spring. Mexico and Peru have made asparagus available virtually year-round.

"Not only that, the other major thing is that they're taking away our other outlets. During previous low cycles, we had Asia to take the excess off our market to help support the price. Those diversions have pretty much evaporated. I was hoping that with the soft dollar, exports would be a little more lively this season, but to date I haven't seen that happen."

Things could get even worse if China, which grows more than 85% of the world's asparagus crop, enters the global market. So far, most of its crop is canned and consumed there. But Japanese investors are exploring opening up China's fresh market, funding businesses that would export asparagus to Japan and the rest of the world.

If that happens, it will not only take away some of American growers' most important markets (even in a down cycle, Japan annually buys more than $13 million worth of U.S. asparagus), it could also bring a tidal wave of asparagus.

When the price drops, the asparagus doesn't stop growing just because of economics. Instead, farmers have a choice of losing money on picking and packing or disking the tops of their fields, knocking down the developing spears and putting the acreage out of production for up to two weeks — a significant span considering the shortness of the asparagus season.

Faced with those alternatives, it's not surprising that some farmers have chosen to give up on the crop altogether and to plow their fields under — as has happened repeatedly in the Imperial Valley. Because asparagus is a perennial plant that needs three years in the ground to get to productive size, this is done only in the most dire of circumstances.

But if things don't turn around, Zuckerman says, that will be the only alternative.

"We've given it more than the old college try," says the third-generation grower. "Farming asparagus means a lot to me. We have been doing it for a long time. But our company has lost $2 million in asparagus in the last five years, and at a certain point you've got to read the writing on the wall and ask why you are doing this."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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