Asparagus industry focuses on local markets

02/01/2013 10:47:00 AM
Vicky Boyd

Courtesy California Asparagus CommissionCalifornia asparagus harvest traditionally begins in early March, and this year’s deal may significantly overlap with the Mexican asparagus deal in February, says James Paul, director of sales and marketing for Greg Paul Produce Sales Inc.After more than a decade of acreage declines of about 10% each year, California’s asparagus plantings appear to have stabilized, providing promotable volumes for about a 90-day period beginning in early March.

The actual length of the season is dictated by weather and market price, said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the El Centro-based California Asparagus Commission.

Rainy weather during the season can interrupt harvest, and heat late in the season can hasten its end.

If imports enter the market at prices lower than domestic cost of production, she said California producers may disk the crop rather than harvest it.

During the past three seasons, asparagus acreage has hovered around 11,000 acres to 12,000 acres, down from a peak of 37,000 acres in 2000.

Overall volume hasn’t declined quite as much since growers are using more sophisticated cultural techniques to produce more pounds per acre.

Ed Zuckerman, president and chief executive officer of Stockton-based Zuckerman-Heritage Inc., said his family’s operation has reduced asparagus acreage over the years by about 80%.

“I think we’re replacing older acreage with new plantings, but we’re not seeing any overall increases,” he said. “The asparagus deal here is still kind of a razor’s edge.”

Before Mexico became a big player, Zuckerman said California growers who entered the February market were able to net high prices.

Now most of the state’s growers, including Zuckerman, wait to start shipping until at least early March, when Mexican production traditionally begins to wane.

This year, it appears the Mexican and Californian seasons will significantly overlap, said James Paul, director of sales and marketing for Greg Paul Produce Sales Inc., Stockton, Calif.

Paul also handles Mexican asparagus sales for The Giumarra Cos.

At the same time, consumers are more savvy and realize the green spears from California are seasonal and are on the market only for about 90 days, Angulo said.

Some high-end restaurants, such as Mortons Steakhouse, feature the extra large or jumbo spears as an optional side dish.

Zuckerman-Heritage is involved in a joint venture to pack asparagus for Mission Produce, Oxnard, Calif. It also sells under the Zuckerman’s Farm label for high-end restaurants and farmers markets within California.

Many of the restaurants highlight the growers who supply the ingredients, and Zuckerman said he hears from friends who have dined on his asparagus.

More recently, a handful of middle-tier eateries, such as Lark Creek in San Francisco and Mimi’s Cafe, have begun regional seasonal promotions featuring California asparagus, Angulo said.

Not only does that mean more overall sales, but she said it’s exposing people who may want to try asparagus at home.

“We want to make it a more approachable vegetable.”

Jacobs Malcolm & Burtt also views foodservice’s use of asparagus as an opportunity, president Leo Rolandelli said. The San Francisco-based firm showed off a 7-inch spear designed for restaurants at the Produce Merchandising Association’s 2012 Fresh Summit in October.

The shorter spear has virtually no waste and can be grilled or steamed without trimming.

“It’s the way to go, but cost-wise, they don’t see it,” Rolandelli said of foodservice. “They don’t look at what they’re throwing away in the garbage.”



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