There’s been a bit of a shakedown in the California and Washington asparagus industries, according to marketing officials in both states.
However, they add, shrinking production isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
A leaner industry, in fact, portends profits for growers who continue to produce in California, said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the El Centro-based California Asparagus Commission.
“We now believe we are in a position to be in line with supply and demand for our marketing season,” Angulo said.
California has about 12,000 acres of asparagus production, which is only about one-third of its acreage in 1999, Angulo said.
“We’ve been in a decline over the last decade, but the market correction has already occurred,” Angulo said. “Those in it now are in it for the long haul.”
Leaner production translates to fewer promotional programs, Angulo acknowledged.
That does not mean that the commission can’t assist retailers in marketing asparagus, Angulo said.
“My message to the retail community is if you need something, let us know,” she said. “We’re not making broadcast efforts, but we are there to assist retailers with specialty promotions. We always have new photos and recipes and other materials available.”
The commission’s Web site, calasparagus.com, features an array of information, including a list of shippers, marketing tips, recipes and nutritional data, Angulo said.
“We’ve pretty much gone electronic in our dissemination of marketing materials,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense for a commission our size not to do that.”
Good quality from California
California’s crop for 2010, meanwhile, is shaping up well, Angulo said
“The reports from the field are that the farmers are impressed with the crop,” she said. “The quality is exquisite, with nice sizes out of the field. The rain off and on has not diminished quality. They’ve been doing well and expect to continue with promotable quantifies through early June.”
Growing conditions have been kind to the industry this year, Angulo said.
“Temperatures have been moderate. There have been no major weather events, which is good, since our cost of production is such that if we can’t get a competitive product they simply won’t grow it,” she said. “We need a competitive price.”
California’s dominant asparagus variety is the UC157, developed at the University of California-Riverside about five years ago.
“The new variety improves on that quality with a tighter tip and longer green spear,” Angulo said. “The U.C.-Riverside folks try to improve on that variety, and we fully expect to have another new variety in the next decade or so.”
About 25% of Washington’s asparagus production goes to the fresh market, said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Eltopia-based Washington Asparagus Commission.
The industry there also has thinned out over the years, he said.
“It hasn’t been to the degree of California. Their volume decrease was a lot bigger than ours,” he said. “Our yields are a little higher but acreage is a little lower.”
Washington has about 7,500 acres of asparagus production this year, trailing both California and Michigan, which has about 11,000.
“We’re down overall because the processing has just left,” Schreiber said. “We’re a little different, though, because we’re up about 25% on fresh over the last 10 years. A lot of processed guys shifted to fresh. We’re one of the few areas around that have actually increased.”
The jersey giant — which is devoted primarily to processing — and jersey knight varieties comprise more than 80% of Washington’s asparagus production, Schreiber said.
“It’s got a good green color with purple tips,” he said. “That’s a color we trade on. The purple has antioxidants and a higher level of sugar. We think the flavor is a little better than the 157.”
There are other attributes that bring favor to the jersey varieties, he added.
“We think the purple on green is more attractive,” he said. “The purple disappears when you cook it, but it has a tighter head so it holds its head better.”
This year, the first harvesting in Washington got under way just before Easter, more than two weeks ahead of the normal schedule, Schreiber said.
“We started borderline record early,” he said. “It’s the earliest harvest we’ve ever had, or one of them. We have concerns about overlap with California, but we’re going to ease into the season.”
Supplies should be ample this season, Schreiber noted.
“I don’t think it’s going to be short supply, but it seems like there’s a strong demand for asparagus,” he said.