Asparagus fans rejoice. The 2016 harvest is officially underway as asparagus farmers began cutting the first green shoots this week.
Washington’s asparagus harvest got off to an early if sputtering start as freezing temperatures early Tuesday morning caused moderate damage to early shoots.
The freeze did moderate damage at Middleton Six Sons Farms north of Pasco but did not stop cutters, said Keith Middleton.
With temperatures expected to reach asparagus-friendly 70 degrees this week, asparagus cutting will likely hit full stride in the coming weeks. Washington is the country’s third largest grower of asparagus with roughly 4,000 acres concentrated within a 60-mile radius of the Tri-Cities.
Asparagus is the first crop of the season making its early arrival a poignant moment for the entire agriculture community.
Washington’s 2015 asparagus crop had a production value of nearly $16 million, according to the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service.
Value of 2015 Washington asparagus harvest
Gary Larsen, who grows asparagus on 325 acres north of Pasco, is optimistic warm temperatures and moist soil conditions will translate into top-quality produce. Larson chiefly sells to Gourmet Trading, the California-based packager with an 85,000-square-foot processing facility in Pasco.
“Moisture levels in the field are excellent. That’s going to allow for a superior crop,” said Larsen, who chairs the Washington Asparagus Commission, an advocacy organization sponsored by the Washington Department of Agriculture.
It’s still early to project prices, said Alan Schreiber, a north Pasco farmer and director of the asparagus commission. His fellow farmers say they’re optimistic a quality crop will bring strong prices, but Schreiber frets that continuing competition from southern megaproducers Mexico and California will dampen prices.
Prices depend heavily on whether Mexico and California are still producing. Ideally, both would be out of the market by the time.
Mexican asparagus production typically drops after Easter. California, the nation’s leading producer with about 10,000 acres, typically falls off a few weeks after that. Washington’s season usually runs from early April until June. Michigan, with 9,500 acres, is the second-largest producer with a season that begins a few weeks after Washington’s.
This week, Schreiber told the asparagus commission he’s pessimistic about market timing. Too many regions producing asparagus will depress prices, he predicted.
“Anytime Mexico, California and Washington are in at the same time, it doesn’t do well for price,” he said. “I don’t think 2016 prices will be as good as 2015.”
Anytime Mexico, California and Washington are in at the same time, it doesn’t do well for price.
Alan Schrieber, director, Washington Asparagus Commission
The overlap between the southern harvests and the Washington one may prove short. Mexican growers are expected to wrap up by April 10, in part because seasonal workers moved on after Easter, which was early this year.
Attracting enough workers to cut asparagus remains a major concern for growers.
Larson said there have been enough people so far. He expects the labor picture to improve as temperatures rise and asparagus matures faster, giving workers more opportunity to earn.
A veteran asparagus cutter can earn $15 to $20 an hour on the piece rate. A single cutter can work three acres a day. In hot weather, asparagus grows as much as eight inches a day and in peak conditions a field may have to be harvested more than once in a single day.
Jim Middleton of Midd Farms near Ringold said the warmer temperatures haven’t reached him yet. He hasn’t yet started harvesting the 150 acres of asparagus on his 600-acre farm. He sells most of his crop to Gourmet Trading but has a small packing operation as well.
Jim Middleton is eager to see Washington asparagus hit the shelves. Growing customer interest in food production can only benefit the industry.
“I really think that when we’re in the market, we have the highest quality. Buy local,” he said.