Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the El Centro-based California Asparagus Commission, expected a bullish start to the Golden State deal.

“We expect demand to be excellent as we know consumers really look forward to the beginning of our season,” she said. “Consumers value our crop’s superior quality and close proximity to the marketplace.”

After years of cutting acreage, California asparagus growers may have finally found a sustainable level of production, said Tom Tjerandsen, marketing consultant for the commission.

About 11,500 acres are expected to be harvested in California in 2011, down from 13,000 in 2009, 15,000 in 2008 and 20,800 in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It looks like the year-to-year declines have stabilized,” Tjerandsen said. “Supply and demand seem to now be adequately balanced. It’s been awhile in coming.”

Angulo agreed.

“Statewide acreage was on the decline over the last decade but has stabilized at a level where California farmers can supply ample amounts of quality asparagus throughout our production season,” she said.

It’s not just a question of supply falling to meet demand, Tjerandsen said. Demand also has risen — thanks in large part to an uptick in foodservice sales.

Ironically, it’s a rise in imported asparagus — the cause of California and other domestic producers cutting acreage in recent years — that is providing a boost in sales of California asparagus to foodservice channels now, Tjerandsen said.

The key has been year-round production. With asparagus a reliable option most if not all of the time, it’s a more attractive option for restaurants.

“Because of imports, chefs can menu it more,” Tjerandsen said.

The orderliness of the asparagus market is another draw for buyers, and another boon for domestic asparagus markets.

“It’s a seamless supply, with very little overlap,” he said. “California shippers wait to start shipping heavily until Mexico is finished.”

James Paul, salesman for Greg Paul Produce, Stockton, Calif., and Altar Produce LLC, Calexico, Calif., wishes that his growers in the Stockton area weren’t growing more than their typical 1,000 to 1,100 acres this season.

He thinks the stronger demand represents an opportunity they’re potentially not cashing in on.

“I’m disappointed because there’s good demand for locally-grown, and asparagus has certainly grown in popularity,” Paul said.

At the same time, Paul understands that growers are wary about competing with import deals, which continue to increase acreage.

Demand for California product should be very strong this season, Paul predicts. Outstanding quality and brisk movement out of Mexico is setting the table nicely for the Golden State, he said.

A late Easter will mean that California will have less competition for meeting customers’ holiday needs.

“I expect pricing to hover around $30-34 at the low end, and the high end could be $50 and above,” he said. “I see a very, very good market ahead for California.”

The wild card, as usual, Paul said, is Peru. But he thinks the gap in quality between California and Peru will sway consumers California’s way.

“With California and Mexico, the asparagus is usually on your plate within a couple of days of being picked,” he said.

“A high percentage of Peruvian product comes in by boat, which means it’s at least two weeks old. There’s definitely a difference in eating experience.”

Angulo agreed.

“We believe consumers value the fact that our crop is shipped in a matter of hours after harvest, insuring the product is as fresh as possible,” she said.

Consumers also like the fact, Angulo said, that California packs 9-inch spears, ensuring more product per bunch.

Demand should be strong for all sizes, Paul said. Television, in large part, deserves much of the credit for that.

“The Food Network has had a big impact on getting people to open their eyes to different sizes,” he said.

“Retailers are more likely to try extra-larges, or smalls. There’s a lot of testing going on.”

While Greg Paul’s acreage has remained steady, the industry as a whole continues to downsize.

“In general, there’s a real downward spiral in California,” he said. “Chances are higher than not that acreage will continue to decrease.”

However, Ed Zuckerman, president and chief executive officer of Stockton-based Zuckerman-Heritage Inc. and a commission board member, said 2011 acreage was similar to last year, and he predicted acreage would likely remain steady over the next few years.