Pasco farmer abandons asparagus field

April 26, 2012 

PASCO -- The once-closed tips of the thigh-high asparagus spears have ferned out.

The giant stems cover a 100-acre field that Larsen Farms of Pasco stopped harvesting about a week ago because they -- along with other Tri-City area farmers -- couldn’t find enough workers this year to cut asparagus.

Owner Gary Larsen said it’s the first time he’s had a labor shortage since he started farming asparagus in 1984.

Asparagus harvest started the second week of April. Warm weather starting Friday caused a flush of asparagus spears that caused harvest to really take off.

In one day, Larsen said his 140 workers harvested more than 3,600 boxes of asparagus.

But it was difficult to keep up because of being short of cutters. Cutters were working 10 to 12 hours a day instead of the five to six Hector Lopez, foreman at Larsen Farms, said they aim for. After all, harvest is seven days a week, without a day off for about 10 weeks. Larsen said while they’ve found some, others have quit.

So he’s abandoned harvest on an old 100-acre field of asparagus that he otherwise would have harvested this year. He’s replacing those acres with new fields being harvested lightly for the first time this year. He’ll plant field corn where the old asparagus was.

Like Larsen, Jim Middleton of Midd Farms in Franklin County said he’s planning to halt harvest on about 15 of his 130 acres. He’ll keep workers harvesting the best-producing fields, letting the other ones go.

He’s been calling everyone he can think of to find workers but so far hasn’t found any. It’s been several years since he has had trouble finding enough workers, and right now, almost everyone is short.

“It’s a surprise,” he said. “Some people didn’t show up, some people found other work.”

Having enough workers is essential because if asparagus isn’t cut for a few days, it gets too tall to be marketable, Jim Middleton said.

“You can’t miss a couple of days,” he said.

Farmers have to guarantee workers will earn at least the state’s minimum wage of $9.04 per hour, Larsen said. They want to hire workers who will make at least that in the rate they get for asparagus they cut.

But right now, Larsen said they are taking just about any workers in hopes the workers will get into shape and make their own wage. Farmers aren’t exactly sure what has caused the lack of labor.

A farm labor shortage occurred last year at the end of the season, when harvest of apples extended later than normal, officials said. Jason Kelly, state Department of Agriculture communications director, said he heard apple growers weren’t picking 3 percent to 5 percent of the apples because of labor shortages.

A drop in Mexican immigrants nationwide could make it difficult to attract migrant labor in Washington, he said.

But Lopez, of Eagle Pass, Texas, said asparagus is one of the most demanding crops to harvest. And this year, they needed more workers with added fields.

Lopez started cutting asparagus with his father at age 15. And when he first started as Larsen’s foreman around 1989, he cut spears and handled foreman duties.

He still remembers how sore his legs were at the beginning of harvest. It takes time for workers to get in shape, he said.

Larsen has his workers train in the fields before harvests to try to help with that, Lopez said.

On Wednesday, small crews, mostly of family members, were scattered among the 320 acres of asparagus still being harvested at Larsen Farms.

Artidoro Melendrez’s movements were swift and efficient as he harvested asparagus spears using the Y-shaped blade of his knife to cut the spear near the dirt, and then, when his left hand was full of asparagus, evening the ends with an abrupt slash of the outside of the knife.

Melendrez, who started cutting asparagus 23 years ago, said in Spanish that the movements for him are instinctive. But the 51-year-old from Sinaloa, Mexico, was keeping an eye on his wife, Armida, 44, and their two sons, Omar, 21, and Artidoro, 16, who were cutting asparagus for the first time this season.

Lopez estimates about 35 percent of their workers this year are new to the farm like Melendrez’s family.

Melendrez said he was able to get his family permanent residency. He enjoys working the field, and said he especially likes the weather in the Tri-Cities.

His “students” are doing well, although they did ask about going home when the flush hit, he said.

On the same field, Creciceno Perez, 58, of Texas, was filling up the box strapped to his side with asparagus spears. Perez said in Spanish that it’s gotten better since he started cutting asparagus in 1975, with smaller crews that really can bring in the pounds.

Lopez said they used to have large crews but found that smaller groups did a more efficient job of harvesting and caring for their rows.

Normally, cutters each have about 2.5 acres to cover. But with a lack of cutters, Larsen said they’ve stretched that to about 3 acres.

Each cutter has about 12 rows about a half-mile long and makes three rounds to cut the asparagus in the rows that is ready, Larsen said.

Lopez said they want the spears to be about 10 inches to 101⁄2 inches long.

Just north of Pasco, Middleton Six Sons Farms no longer has a labor shortage. Owner Bill Middleton said he did, until the windstorm Monday night destroyed asparagus spears on his 300 acres.

The asparagus his workers would have harvested for the next five to six days became unmarketable. But workers will still be cutting the damaged spears, cleaning up the fields, he said.

His 120 new acres of asparagus were producing well before the windstorm. Bill Middleton said they only harvested those fields for about two weeks, and won’t harvest them any more this season. New fields of asparagus only are harvested for several weeks.

Some of his 100 workers may be able to work for other farmers, he said.

Although he will get through the season with enough workers, Bill Middleton said he may look into the federal H-2A temporary agricultural program to bring workers to the area.

But that would likely increase the already high labor costs by 25 percent to 30 percent, he said.

And it takes five to six months to set up hiring foreign workers through the program, he said.

* Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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