Mid-Columbia farmers stalk success with asparagus

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldApril 22, 2012 

Gary Larsen hopes to harvest 16,000 pounds per acre each year from the asparagus fields at his Pasco farm.

That's what it will take for Larsen Farms to be competitive, he said.

He's planning to replant 160 acres of his farm next year with new varieties including Guelph Millennium from Canada and several from Germany.

He said he hired Bill Middleton of nearby Middleton Six Sons Farms to grow the crowns for him this year. He's hoping to get more spears from those varieties.

"That will be a game changer for us," he said.

Several factors have affected the Washington asparagus industry during the past three decades, including the 1991 Andean Trade Preference Act that gave South American countries an upper hand and the rise of minimum wage for the labor-intensive crop.

Since the 1990s, the state has gone from about 27,500 acres of asparagus to about 6,000, and 70 percent of that acreage is in Benton and Franklin counties.

More asparagus was planted last year than has been in a decade, said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission. A similar amount was planted this year, and more is expected next year, he said.

Middleton, chairman of the Washington Asparagus Commission, is harvesting 120 new acres of asparagus this year, providing him with a total of 300 acres. He planted the crowns last year, and harvest is expected to last for three to four weeks. It takes several years for the crowns to be in full production.

Most of his new acreage is planted with Jersey Knight, a common variety, but he also has 33 acres of Guelph Millennium and two of the purple varieties.

This year, he's also planted a large nursery and estimates it will mean 400 acres for asparagus farmers to plant. Middleton grows the crowns from seeds, which are then transplanted into fields by other farmers. His nursery includes new varieties such as Guelph Millennium.

The last three years have been good, he said, with high demand. He also hired about 80 workers this year, which is normal, he said.

Meanwhile, Mike Miller of Airfield Estates Vineyard said he once farmed as many as 350 acres of asparagus at his Sunnyside farm. He's cut production down to 15 acres, and those planting new fields of asparagus are making a mistake, he said.

Miller has moved from asparagus to Concord and wine grapes. His grapes are made into wine at Airfield Estates.

Miller said he didn't walk away from asparagus lightly. His family started growing the crop in the 1920s.

"Washington grows fantastic asparagus," he said.

But, there is an artificial price cap on asparagus because Peru will start exporting asparagus to the United States when the prices get high enough.

"You can have a total disaster if they dump too much asparagus into here," Miller said.

Middleton said the asparagus that comes from Peru can't compete in quality with asparagus from Washington. Imported asparagus is heated after it gets off the plane to be fumigated, and then cooled.

Larsen, who has farmed asparagus since 1984, said asparagus has been good to him. Each year, his yield ranges from 9,000 to 10,000 pounds per acre. And he has good workers who help him get the most out of his crop.

"I like the challenge of it," he said.

Larsen has 420 acres of asparagus, but said 260 acres will have a shorter season because the crowns either are new or old.

He doesn't plan on adding more fields at this point after adding 60 acres last year. He runs a crew of 140 workers, and said he can't find enough for this season.

The quality of the asparagus spears this year has been fantastic, Larsen said. He's hopeful for a good harvest this year.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service