Asparagus is available year-round, thanks, in large measure, to 12-month shipments from Peru, which led all importing countries into the U.S. market, with 17.30 million 11-pound boxes in 2013.
Shipments are lighter in the late-winter to early spring, as Mexico trails off and California’s deal heats up, marketers say.
However, they say, it’s important to keep promoting the product at retail.
“We run into trouble when the market gets unstable and the retailers don’t feel confident in the supply,” said Walter Yager, chief executive officer of Miami-based Alpine Fresh Inc. and the East Coast chairman of the Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association.
Peru offers purple asparagus, in contrast to many rivals from the U.S. and Mexico.
“The problem is trying to time supply on purple grass. However, it has really become a nice complement to the category,” Yager said.
Priscilla Lleras, Fort Worth, Texas-based coordinator of the PAIA, said purple asparagus is an important component in Peru’s asparagus portfolio.
“PAIA members understand the market and many are bringing new options to U.S. consumers,” she said.
Purple and white asparagus remain niche items, though, said Peter Warren, marketing and sales director for Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Ayco Farms Inc.
“For 100 boxes of green, we sell, maybe five white and one purple,” Warren said.
Purple grass is gaining interest, he said.
“It’s sexy to say we have all three colors for retailers, but the reality is I don’t know any Americans who eat white asparagus, and I don’t know if I know that many that eat purple,” he said.
Yager said volumes from Peru should be steady throughout 2014.
“Overall acreage is down but we anticipate shipping a higher percentage of our production from the fresh category,” he said.
Peru’s volume begins to pick up in mid-May, Warren said.
For a time, Warren said, there was some thought that this year’s late Easter (April 20) might present some marketing opportunities for Peru, but those hopes have faded.
“We thought there was going to be a major gap and things would slow around Easter and there wasn’t going to be enough, but you don’t hear those rumors anymore and it seems like there’s not going to be any tremendous shortfall for Easter,” he said.
Peru’s normal “peak” season is June through January, Warren said.
Peru — along with Mexico — has complicated the U.S. asparagus market, as far as California is concerned, said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the El Centro-based California Asparagus Commission.
“Off-season imports have created a complex situation for California’s asparagus industry,” she said.
That’s not all bad, Watte Angulo said.
“Year-round availability of asparagus means consumers can source the product 365 days of the year and it is more likely to become a regular part of a family’s food purchases,” she said.
More consumption means consumers are more comfortable preparing asparagus and integrating it more often in to a family’s meals, Watte Angulo noted.
“On the other hand, more product on the market means we often face marketing challenges like we are at this time with too much imported product on the marketplace creating a glut and depressing price,” she said.
Peruvian shippers are concerned, too, about low markets, said Brian Miller, the PAIA’s West Coast chairman and president and CEO of Los Angeles-based Gourmet Trading Co.
“The Peruvian suppliers are, of course, concerned about the recent market lows. However, with Easter just around the corner, the market is already showing signs of strengthening,” he said.
Price point and appropriate merchandising are two keys to marketing Peruvian grass at retail, Miller said.
“These two issues together play a key role in keeping asparagus appealing to consumers,” he said.