(CORRECTED, Feb. 7) At the turn of the century, California growers were farming 36,000 acres of asparagus.
Twenty years later, that number has plummeted.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture lists the state’s harvested acres of asparagus for 2018 as 6,000, but current acreage is said to be far lower than that — perhaps as few as 1,000 acres.
The decline started with the North American Free Trade Agreement that took effect in 1994, said Cherie Watte, former executive director of the California Asparagus Commission and now a spokeswoman for the industry.
Until that time, growers were able to get a premium for their high-quality California asparagus, she said.
But with NAFTA, which was replaced late in 2019 by the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the difference in labor costs for producing the “largely hand-harvested, hand-sorted, hand-packed commodity” between Mexico and the U.S. began to have a major impact.
Acreage already was dropping 10% or 15% per year when the California legislature launched a plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour as soon as 2022 and then eliminated the overtime exemption for agriculture workers.
“The resulting regulations in California — both minimum wage and removal of our overtime exemption — were the final nails in the coffin,” Watte said.
“We just cannot produce a highly labor-intensive commodity in a state with such high labor rates and labor regulations.”
Growers even looked at using machines to do their harvesting, but so far, that has not panned out.
“The problem is, (machines) cost a lot of money, they break down frequently, they don’t always cut to the specifications of the retailer, and they’re slow,” Watte said.
“There was never the perfect storm to help our industry rebound.”
Five Crowns Marketing Inc., Brawley, Calif., had an asparagus program in Bakersfield, Calif., for years before it was pulled out two seasons ago, said Daren Van Dyke, director of marketing.
At one time, the company also had nearly 1,800 acres in California’s Imperial Valley.
“The California deal is pretty much gone by the wayside,” he said.
The company, which now imports asparagus, turned to Washington to fill the Bakersfield gap.
“California is a hollow husk of its former self,” said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission.
“It had to do with the imports from Mexico, loss of the overtime exemption for agriculture and a generally unfriendly business climate in California,” he said.
The current minimum wage in California is $12 per hour for companies with 25 employers or less, and $13 per hour for companies with 26 or more employees. In comparison, the minimum wage in Mexico is $6.20 per day, he said.
“In one hour in California, you will make almost twice as much as you would in a day in Mexico,” he said.
“Asparagus is a labor-intensive crop, and it’s hard to be competitive.”
The California Asparagus Commission was “suspended” on Dec. 31, 2019, Watte said.
By suspending the commission rather than terminating it, the industry has an opportunity to bring it back without having to start the organizing process from scratch, she said.
Will the commission ever be revived?
“I’m an eternal optimist,” Watte said.
“There are no better climate conditions, soil conditions and institutional knowledge than in California,” she said.
“If there’s a solution, I’m fairly certain it will be implemented to produce asparagus in California once again.”
The commission’s website, calasparagus.org, continues to offer asparagus recipes, facts and nutrition information and has been authorized to continue until 2026.
Note on correction: A previous version of the story did not mention the higher California minimum wage for larger companies.
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