SUNNYSIDE -- Sunnyside asparagus farmer Mike Miller said he used to be able to offer his asparagus when the region's wineries held their spring barrel tasting events in late April.
"But it's a crap shoot whether I'll have asparagus" available by the end of April this year, he said.
Miller, of Airport Ranch Inc., is among several Mid-Columbia growers who said cold weather has delayed asparagus harvest this year.
Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Eltopia-based Washington Asparagus Commission, said most growers "have gotten in and harvested a little bit, but not enough."
"Asparagus starts coming up, and we think we're about ready to cut, and we get frost," Schreiber said.
Frost, particularly if there is a high dew point, burns the spears, which basically melt the next morning.
Laura Middleton, asparagus marketing director for Middleton Six Sons Farms in Pasco, said that's what she has experienced.
"(Tuesday) we got 20 boxes. That's really bad," she said.
Those boxes came from fields near the Columbia River in Burbank that are protected from the cold.
Despite that, she hopes to have asparagus for sale at the farm's stand on the road to Kahlotus by this weekend.
She said she will post a notice on the farm website, www.middletonsixsonsfarms.com, when the stand opens.
Schreiber said the Mid-Columbia asparagus harvest typically starts between April 5 and 15.
But despite the cold nights, he said the 10-day forecast of days in the 60s and nights above freezing is promising.
"By next week, we're going to be rocking and rolling in asparagus," he said.
If the weather stays mild, he is hoping the state will produce about 25 million pounds of the crop, which is typical for a good year.
Miller was less optimistic.
As of Tuesday, he had yet to cut any spears. And he said the past three years of harvests have been delayed by cold weather.
He has other concerns as well.
"I'm hearing there isn't asparagus in Washington or California," he said, noting that if supply is low, it could drive prices up, which could be an incentive for South American growers to dump a lot of cheap asparagus in the U.S.
That would push prices down, he said.
Miller said that's what he thought happened three years ago. It's part of what has led him to phase out his asparagus.
Three years ago, he had 100 acres. Last year, he cut back to 70; now he's down to 50 acres.
Schreiber agreed that the Andean Trade Preference Act has hurt U.S. asparagus growers.
Signed in 1990 and enacted in 1991, the agreement eliminated tariffs on asparagus and certain other products from Andean countries, such as Peru.
"It ruined us, you bet," Schreiber said.
About 1990, Washington farmers used to harvest about 100 million pounds of asparagus. Now they harvest about a quarter of that.
The state's growers have lost more than $250 million in revenue since the act took effect, he said.
Todd Merrill of Merrill Farms, north of Pasco, has another concern this year. He is having a hard time finding laborers.
He said some of his regular help isn't available because they have started families or have health issues.
"People don't want to do it. It's hard work," he said. "I'm just getting the word out I need people and hopefully they'll send people my way."