Michigan asparagus growers are fending off competition from imports and battling for long-term survival while leaning on H-2A for labor needs and moving an increasing percentage of asparagus on the fresh market.
After starting about May 10 in earnest, Michigan asparagus harvest in the west-central part of the state will continue through the end of June, said John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, DeWitt.
Cool weather limited picks of asparagus fields to about 11-12 harvest sessions through late May, compared to normal tallies of 15-16.
While processed volume last year took about 60% of the crop, Bakker said there is less processing demand this year and that could lead to more fresh shipments.
“I would say this year, we’re probably likely to be around 75% fresh and 25% processed,” he said.
Supply and demand
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture reported that Michigan’s asparagus acreage was 12,285 acres in 2017, up from 9,405 acres in 2012 and 12,127 acres in 2007. Acreage has gone down compared with 1997, when 18,266 acres of asparagus were harvested in the state.
“We’ve been holding fairly steady (with acreage),” Bakker said, noting about 9,500 acres this year.
Bakker said growers have adequate labor supply, mostly due to participation in the federal H-2A guest worker program.
The first Michigan grower to use the H-2A program did so in 2015, and now Bakker said about two-thirds to three-fourths of the asparagus will be harvested by H-2A.
“Labor is costly, but it certainly isn’t a concern like it was for us five years ago,” he said.
Growers must pay a prevailing wage of more than $13 per hour, but the true cost is more than $20 per hour, he said, counting for the administrative charges by labor contractors and the cost of housing.
The USDA on May 31 reported shipping point prices for Michigan large asparagus in 28-pound crates at $42.95-48.95, similar to prices a year ago.
Competition with Mexico and Peru in the May-June marketing window has discouraged some growers, Bakker said.
“I would say (this) spring, the morale was probably as low as I’ve seen it in quite a few years,” he said, noting that growers have seen sharp price pressure from Peru and Mexico asparagus coming in during their harvest season.
“We haven’t seen that (pressure) this year, so I think that the pricing is going to be a little bit better this year,” he said.
Last year, 28-pound crates of Michigan asparagus traded in mid-May at $58 per crate and traded in an average weekly range of $47.50-53 per crate from late May to late June.
Michigan’s asparagus shipping season is May through June. Last year, May volume accounted for 33% of total fresh shipments and June accounted for about 67% of total annual volume.
Michigan’s fresh shipments of 385,000 28-pound equivalent crates in 2018 compared with 421,000 crates in 2017 and 417,000 crates in 2016.
In 2018, Michigan accounted for about 32% of total domestic asparagus shipments, trailing Washington (49%) but well ahead of California (19%). However, both Mexico and Peru have big year-round volume coming to the U.S., and last year May-June U.S. imports from those two countries were seven times bigger than Michigan’s shipments in those two months.