Keith Middleton suspects he’s the only asparagus grower in Washington with workers in the field.
Middleton Six Sons Farms began cutting asparagus just north of Pasco last week, about five days later than 2016.
The farm appears to be the only spot in Washington where soil has warmed enough to produce asparagus spears mature enough to harvest. A fellow farmer just five miles away isn’t as lucky, Middleton said.
“As far as I know we’re the only grower in Washington state picking,” he said.
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Asparagus is a relatively small crop for Washington, representing fewer than 4,000 acres and $18.6 million in value, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
However, as the first crop to ripen and hit grocery shelves, asparagus plays a starring role in agriculture as the herald of both spring and the coming growing season.
Mid-Columbia growers typically begin harvesting in early- to mid-April, about the time schools recess for spring, and just in time to pitch asparagus as an Easter dinner tradition. The 2016 season got underway in late March.
But a cold winter and cool spring slowed things down this year.
Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission, predicts the harvest will begin in earnest in the Columbia Basin in the next week and shortly after that in the Yakima Valley.
Washington is the third-largest grower of asparagus in the U.S., behind California and Michigan. Its growers are heavily concentrated within a 60-mile radius of the Tri-Cities.
“Soil temperatures need to be above 50 degrees Fahrenheit,” Schreiber said. “Right now, a lot of places are right at 50.”
Fans may be impatient for a hit of locally grown asparagus, but the late start could work to the advantage of Washington growers. The start of the Washington asparagus harvest typically overlaps with the tail end of the Mexican crop and with California. The result is usually strong supply and low prices.
Mexico will ease out as southern temperatures climb, trimming supply and driving up prices right around Easter, which is Sunday.
‘If we have a late start, we’re hoping the Mexican growers will get out of the market,” Schreiber said. “It could be a good thing.”
Once it gets going, 2017 should be good. The asparagus commission predicts moderate growth over last year, assuming normal conditions.
Growers planted about 4,000 acres this year. That’s largely unchanged from recent years.
But yields are on the rise with new varieties reaching maturity. That means more asparagus growing per acre. Schreiber said the new varieties, including Geulth Millennium from Canada, Voltair from France, and Rapsody from Germany were planted in recent years and are reaching maturity.
After a presidential election campaign featuring rhetoric that demonized undocumented workers, the industry has fretted that workers fearful of being deported will stay away from fields, accelerating labor shortages that have dogged farmers in recent years.
The news so far from growers is that workers are reporting to fields for the labor-intensive process of cutting asparagus.
Middleton said he’s had enough workers so far. He speculates the short commute between Pasco and his farm is attractive to workers. And he’s planted the newer varieties that yield more to cut, which attracts workers who can earn more when there’s more to gather.
Schreiber said Mid-Columbia growers are cautiously optimistic that there will be enough workers. Harvesting asparagus involves bending and cutting. And because asparagus, like grass, keeps growing, the same field is harvested several times over the course of the short growing season.
Growers may be optimistic but the labor outlook is difficult, said Dan Fazio, executive director of the Washgington Farm Labor Association. “Labor conditions will be bad,” he said.
The association anticipates a 20 percent shortage of workers, based on data from the state as well as employers and visa applications.
Controversy over documented versus undocumented workers isn’t the issue, Fazio said.
“It masks the fundamental trend that outdoor workers, seasonal, manual labor, is going to be hard to come by,” he said.
The second annual Washington Asparagus Festival is from 5 to 10 p.m. May 6 at Middleton Farms, 1050 Pasco Kahlotus Highway. There will be a live band, field tours, a hay ride, asparagus samplings and beer and wine. Admission is $10.