Across the country and into Canada, asparagus growers are keeping one eye on the thermometer and the other on the ground as their crop pops, in some places an entire month early.
Growers began harvesting in early March, said Cherie Angulo, executive director of the El Centro-based California Asparagus Commission, and the crop should continue through May and into June.
“Demand for California asparagus remains strong as retailers and consumers recognize its quality,”Angulo said.
To help consumers differentiate between California stalks and the competition, the commission has launched a marketing campaign focused on print, Web and electronic media to get the word out — “Spring is here and so is California Asparagus!”
Angulo said the commission has distributed recipes to key consumer publications to inspire consumers to prepare asparagus at home.
“In this climate of diminishing budgets, we aren’t able to produce point of purchase tools,” she said.
“However, we are open to suggestions and encourage retailers to let us know if they have a particular need we may be able to fulfill,” she added.
A month ago, Michigan growers were excited about the 2012 season.
Yields were up 20% last year, the demand for local asparagus is strong and even the demand for frozen asparagus is on the rise.
Then came spring, a month early.
“We’ve never had quite this situation before,” said John Bakker, executive director of the DeWitt-based Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, on an 85-degree day in March.
“According to our model, we’ll have widespread emergence the week of March 26,” he said, “which would put us a month ahead of normal.”
Even if the crop isn’t hit by frost, growers probably won’t be able to organize enough labor in time to harvest an early crop, Bakker said.
The uncertain labor situation, even in good years, is holding back expansion, he said.
“It’s a shame because markets look like they’re coming around,” he said.
The board’s annual radio marketing campaign, which typically runs in late May, is now on hold until it’s clear whether there will be a crop.
“We’re already adjusting to what could be a less than stellar year,” he said.
The Washington Asparagus Commission isn’t doing any marketing this year.
“Since our supply is in line with demand, we have no difficulty moving 100% of our crop,” said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Eltopia-based Washington Asparagus Commission.
“Our asparagus seems to be selling itself.”
As for this year’s crop, Schreiber predicted a normal start around April 8, providing the weather cooperates.
After two years of challenging weather during harvest, he said he’d be grateful for an uneventful year.
Schreiber said in an e-mail from China that supermarkets in the country’s major cities are full of domestically produced asparagus.
“It’s very well packaged in 100-gram containers,” he said, “something like 3-ounce bundles.”
He also found asparagus on restaurant and hotel menus.
“China has turned into an asparagus-consuming country,” he said.
After two weeks of suntan weather in March followed by a cold snap, the fate of Ontario’s emerging asparagus remains unclear.
“We’ve heard that if the good weather stays, some growers may be shipping the weeks of April 16th or 23rd, said Marvin Karges, executive director of the Simcoe-based Ontario Asparagus Growers’ Marketing Board.
“Normally, we try to get it for Mother’s Day,” said Karges.
Along with the challenge of flying in labor from Mexico and the Caribbean early, he said large retailers may be unwilling to interrupt imports to accept Ontario product, knowing supply could be interrupted by bad weather.
“It’s a challenge for everyone,” he said. “Some growers may just try to stick to their regular schedule.”