Plant may put Washington atop asparagus ranks

05/01/2006 12:00:00 AM
Renee Stern

(May 1) PASCO, Wash. — For Los Angeles-based Gourmet Trading Co., a new fresh asparagus packing facility not only makes it a year-round distributor, but it’s also the first step in pushing Washington state to the forefront of domestic production.

“This plant is the final piece in our program,” said president Chris Martin at the opening of an 80,000-square-foot facility he called the world’s largest. Washington asparagus fills a gap in the company’s existing supplies from Peru, Mexico and California, and means, he said, “We never stop selling asparagus.”

An April 21st plant tour for buyers, growers and local officials kicked off the season for Gourmet Trading’s 12 packing lines, which share a building with an existing Balcom & Moe Inc. potato storage.

Martin projected the asparagus lines would handle 10 million pounds this year, with the capacity to handle twice that.
Alan Schreiber, director of the Washington Asparagus Commission, Eltopia, said the plant was the biggest in Washington and one of the biggest in the U.S.
Expansion plans include an additional four packing lines.

Schreiber said the state’s fresh asparagus production this year would be about 41 million pounds. He said a 40 million-pound crop has a farm-gate value of $20 million to growers and $50 million to packers.

Martin said California now produces from 60 million to 65 million pounds of asparagus, compared to Washington’s 40 million.
But that ranking could change quickly, he said.

“Within five years, I predict Washington will be the No. 1 asparagus packing state in the United States,” he said.

The company sells asparagus around the world, from New York to Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, England and Canada.

“There’s a great market out there in the world for great asparagus, and that’s what we have,” he said. “Washington owns the asparagus market from April 15th to June 15th.”

The Pasco facility includes a 30,000-square-foot packing room, with more than 80,000 square feet available for use during the height of the asparagus season, said Allan Nerell, vice president of packing operations for Gourmet Trading. Nerell took the space from an empty floor to operational status in nine months.

Gourmet Trading and Pasco potato packer Balcom & Moe will share some cooler space in the building, but overlap from the asparagus and potato seasons will be minimal, said Brian Miller, sales manager for Gourmet Trading.

As many as 500 workers will pack asparagus at the plant in 1-pound bunches for standard 28-pound boxes and 11-pound boxes, as well as 13.5-kilogram and 3.5-kilogram packages preferred by export customers.



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