Asparagus harvest got off to a record early start in the Mid-Columbia, thanks to a mild winter and unusually warm spring.
Some Tri-City area asparagus farms started cutting asparagus spears as early as March 25. April 5 is considered an average start date.
It’s the first Mid-Columbia crop to be harvested each spring.
Washington farmers will harvest about 5,000 acres of asparagus this spring, said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission. That acreage — within a 60-mile radius of the Tri-Cities — has been holding steady in recent years.
Last year’s harvest was worth about $13.7 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At Larsen Farms north of Pasco, farmer Gary Larsen said harvest started more than 10 days ago, about 10 days earlier than normal.
Quality right now is wonderful, he said.
Cool weather suits the growing asparagus, Schreiber said. “The asparagus that is coming out looks like a million bucks,” he said.
The biggest problem growers have is that volume is low enough right now that neither workers nor farmers are making much, Larsen said. It’s just warm enough that the asparagus spears on his 325 acres need to be cut, but workers are earning minimum wage.
Typically, workers earn more than minimum wage based on a piece rate, he said. And normally, volume is enough to switch to piece rate about a week into harvest.
Harvest should pick up later this week, since high temperatures near 70 degrees are expected, Larsen said. For now, some of his fields only need cutting every other day.
Finding enough workers also is a challenge, Larsen said.
“Everything else is early too,” he said. And that means competing with other farmers who need workers to prune orchards and transplant onions.
Overall, labor supply is tight, Schreiber said. That’s become the norm for Washington farmers.
This year, Schreiber expects production to be up slightly. Some farmers have replaced older acres and planted newer, higher-producing fields of the perennial crop.
The market for asparagus appears strong so far this year, but farmers need more volume to better meet the demand, Larsen said.
Still, fresh Tri-City asparagus can be found at Country Mercantile north of Pasco and various Tri-City area farm stands.
Asparagus harvest will end early and remain about two months long because cherries also are expected to be early, Larsen said.
Once cherry harvest begins, workers will switch to hand pick the sweet fruit, he said.