Courtesy California Asparagus CommissionA warm spring has pushed California asparagus fields ahead of schedule. Historically most growers in California don't begin harvesting until mid-March.Although disking isn’t the most desirable, Barbara Cecchini, who farms west of Stockton, Calif., said she doesn’t want to start off the season in the red.
She planned to disk part of her fields and had hoped to secure a processing contract for the remaining production.
“I don’t care if I make money — what I don’t want to do is lose money,” Cecchini said. She pointed to the 2013 season, which started out with strong prices that soon dipped.
“I can’t afford to lose money again — I won’t start if it’s a losing thing,” she said.
Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the El Centro-based California Asparagus Commission, said Cecchini was smart to not pick with prices so low.
“This year it’s just horrible — a lot of growers are being forced to postpone the start of the harvest,” she said. “If the price doesn’t rebound, they will just keep disking.
“They can’t run red ink at the beginning of the season and expect to make it up during the season. Every year we’re playing catch-up, and it’s not an enviable situation.”
The increasing competition from Mexican production is the main reason why California’s acreage and production has decreased, Angulo said. Heading into this season, she predicted the state’s growers would harvest about 34 million pounds — about what they have the past three years.
That compares to the peak of 94 million pounds in 2000 before the North American Free Trade Agreement eliminated all tariffs on imported asparagus.
“Long-term, we can’t continue to have this problem,” Angulo said. “Our growers aren’t going to continue to have asparagus in the fields. It’s not an economically sustainable crop if we have to play this game every single year.”
Asparagus is considered a permanent crop, with crowns buried in the soil pushing forth spears during the spring. Disking lops off one crop of spears, but it’s not as gentle on the crowns as having workers selectively cut them, Cecchini said.
Her costs, without any extra packing requirements, are about $25 per 28-pound box, she said. Subtracting out shipping and marketing expenses, Cecchini said she receives about $16 per box.
She said she needs that much to just break even because her labor costs are so much higher than counterparts in Mexico.