U.S. imports of Peruvian asparagus arrive year-round, but peak supplies are expected beginning in September and continuing through the balance of the year.
Importers say volume will be flat to slightly lower, in part because of COVID-19 stresses on labor and transportation.
U.S. imports of Peruvian asparagus are fumigated for pest exclusion, so that precludes any organic certification for any Peruvian apsaragus.
With weakened foodservice sales, retail promotions will take the Spotlight this year, importers say.
“We expect slightly less volume for the U.S. market versus last year,” said Katiana Valdes, marketing director of Crystal Valley Foods, Miami, Fla.
“While we do bring in product from Peru year-round, it typically peaks in the fall from September/October through December.”
Competitive factors, notably supply from Mexico, limit Peru’s ability to compete from a cost standpoint for the North American market in February through June, said Alan Guttmann, general manager of global vegetable sourcing for Robinson Fresh.
“The four-year volume compound annual growth for Peruvian asparagus from September through January is relatively flat at 1.6% according to (the U.S. Department of Agriculture),” Guttman said.
“There isn’t anything that I have heard to lead me to believe that 2020 will be much different.”
Because growers in Peru have focused on blueberry, grape and avocado production, Guttman said asparagus plantings have not been expanding very fast in recent years.
“We are receiving lower volumes from Peru compared to the same period last year,” said Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Pompano Beach, Fla.-base Southern Specialties.
“COVID-related issues have slowed production, though we expect harvests to increase as we move into August.”
Through mid-July, U.S. imports of Peruvian asparagus were 28.5 million pounds, down 40% from 48.4 million pounds.
The actions of the Peru government related to COVID-19 could affect the flow of product the balance of the year, said Christopher Ramirez, president of Altar Produce, Calexio, Calif.
“There is no real clear answer; (the import outlook) is really up in the air depending on how Peru government decides to deal with the pandemic,” he said.
“We already saw how it affected during quarantine, causing short supply during April, May and June. There is rumors it will be entering quarantine again within a matter of days or weeks.”
Ramirez said a good number of Peruvian growers are also trying to hold off volume until the later part of the year in hopes that worldwide logistic strains will ease and demand will increase, but again there is no guarantee this will happen.
“We do believe Peru will have to peak one way or another during September and October; Peruvian growers will be forced to open their fields, otherwise they will miss the window before Mexico comes in with big volume (in) early 2021.”
COVID-19 is causing big supply chain strains for Peruvian asparagus volume, Ramirez said.
“Air space is limited and unless market allows it, shippers will continue to avoid it as much as they can due to very fragile markets,” he said.
Initial COVID-19 quarantine measures in Peru have eased but there are fears of quarantine being reinstated are there.
“If this happens we will see 50% to 60% packing capacity again,” he said.
While imports of Peruvian asparagus come by a mix of air and boat, Valdes said that the COVID-19 quarantines and other realities of the pandemic have had an effect on supply and costs from all asparagus growing regions.
“Due to limited air space because of the decrease in flights, at certain times of the year, freight has gone up,” Valdes said.
The availability of labor also has been restricted at times because of quarantines, she said.
“Social distancing at the plants, as well as increased security at plants, ports and airports have added an additional layer of expense for growers,” Eagle said.
Guttmann said that air shipments of Peruvian asparagus have declined over the past few years for a variety of reasons.
“Over the past 5 years, the industry has transitioned significantly from importing most of the volume by air to weekly container arrivals to satisfy contractual and retail demand,” Guttman said.
“Not only is the container supply chain much cheaper, but it is also more reliable.”
Guttman said Robinson Fresh doesn’t think that COVID-19 will have much of an effect on how product is grown and transported, but the company does anticipate there to be increased demand for packaged asparagus.
Retail promotions shine
Valdes said there is still great potential for the industry to grow the asparagus category.
“We need to remind current asparagus consumers about its great health benefits and introduce new and innovative usages and we also need to reach out to those consumers who may not know about this amazing vegetable yet,” she said.
Retailers can educate consumers about asparagus uses and health benefits through traditional point-of-sale materials as well as by sharing recipes and information on their websites and social media platforms.
“In-store demos are also a great vehicle for increasing retail movement of both white and green asparagus and offer customers a chance to try the product, perhaps in a unique way that they might night have thought of before,” Valdes said.
Eagle said there are many promotion options for asparagus.
“We work with our retail partners to create promotional opportunities throughout the year,” he said.
“With an asparagus menu that runs the gamut from conventional bunched asparagus in green, white and purple, through organic product and a variety of packaged SKUs, we provide retailers with many opportunities to showcase product for their consumers.”
Sales to foodservice outlets continue to be difficult, but there are opportunities to promote asparagus at retail, Ramirez said.
“The good thing is people are cooking more at home so we are seeing healthy retail demand, but it is a very fragile market,” he said.