Asparagus yields lower than expected because of labor shortage

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJuly 2, 2012 

A cool spring helped Tri-City farmers grow quality asparagus, but farmers said yields were lower than anticipated, partly because of a struggle to find enough workers.

Bryan Lynch, co-owner of LF Farms north of Pasco, said weather conditions were better than last year.

Asparagus harvest wrapped up in mid-June, as farm workers in Benton and Franklin counties switched to cherries. The harvest season lasted almost 60 days for some farmers.

Most of the state's 100 asparagus growers farm in Benton, Franklin, Yakima, Walla Walla and Grant counties. About 70 percent of the state's asparagus is grown in Benton and Franklin counties. That amounts to about 4,000 acres.

Lynch estimates he was short by about 50 workers this year, even with the 250 he had. And with new fields in their third season next year -- when full harvest begins -- worker needs will remain high.

Prices were high enough to compensate for a lower-than-desired yield, said Gary Larsen of Larsen Farms in Pasco.

But he did see almost 9,000 pounds per acre from some new fields, which he hopes will grow to 12,000 pounds per acre next year during their first full season. Larsen said he stopped cutting the new fields the last week in May.

More workers quit this season than normal, Larsen said. It's normal to have some who decide the work is too hard or aren't willing to work every day through the whole season. Larsen said that while he had a three-inch-high stack of employment documents for workers at the start of the season, not all the workers showed, causing him and others to stop cutting some fields.

Larsen estimates the loss to the economy because of the 400 or so acres left uncut this season was up to $700,000. He stopped cutting a 100-acre asparagus field and replaced it with corn. That's an economic loss to the community, he said.

Having enough labor remains a concern for next year, especially with newer fields coming online. More asparagus was planted last year than in the past decade.

Larsen said asparagus growers need to try to attract workers into the state to cut asparagus.

Thankfully, not a lot is going on when asparagus is ready to cut, he said. But some who used to come to cut don't anymore because they think jobs aren't available.

Neither Lynch nor Larsen considers the federal H-2A temporary agricultural program a solution for local asparagus growers. It would increase labor costs that already are high, Lynch said.

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

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