‘On The Tipping Point’ Of The Spear: U.S. Asparagus Farmers Worry As Import Competition Grows

Washington asparagus is just starting to be cut, but farmers worry if their industry will hold on for the long haul. Cheaper imports from Mexico and Peru are putting pressure on Washington, California and Michigan farmers. ANNA KING / NW NEWS NETWORK
Washington asparagus is just starting to be cut, but farmers worry if their industry will hold on for the long haul. Cheaper imports from Mexico and Peru are putting pressure on U.S. farmers. CREDIT: ANNA KING / N3

Listen

Asparagus cutters bend deep over their work in the early morning light. Colorful plastic bins stack like giant legos amid the scrubby fields north of Pasco, Washington.

Growers in Washington, California and Michigan raise the majority of the nation’s domestic asparagus — and Washington’s season is on.

But business in U.S. spears is noticeably dwindling.

That’s because there’s increasing amounts of cheaper asparagus from Peru and Mexico coming in: fresh, canned and frozen. And that’s cutting into profits for U.S. growers.

Asparagus commission directors from all three states say the price of labor to cut just one hour in the U.S. is about what a worker earns per day of cutting in Mexico. California’s market has so dwindled that the commission expects to shutter this winter, says executive director Cherie Watte. Now the industry is just concentrating on feeding local consumers who will pay a premium for the regionally-sourced produce.

Alan Schreiber heads Washington state’s commission.

He shows off his own farm’s packing shed with dozens of workers deftly sorting and boxing fat spears of asparagus.

The asparagus harvest is underway in Washington. But there's much more competition from foreign growers. CREDIT ANNA KING / NW NEWSNETWORK

The asparagus harvest is underway in Washington. But there’s much more competition from foreign growers.
CREDIT: ANNA KING/N3

Schreiber says he is aggravated that produce managers in grocery stores are now choosing to carry cheaper foreign asparagus, even during prime season for local growers.   

“Nothing bothers us more than to see a grocery store in the Pacific Northwest, carrying Mexican or Peruvian asparagus during our harvest season,” he says. “When it’s April, May and June it ought to be Pacific Northwest asparagus.”

Schreiber says in 1990 Washington grew 100 million pounds of asparagus. Now, farmers here produce just 23 million pounds.

In Michigan it’s largely Peruvian asparagus that’s in the marketplace during the Wolverine state’s season.

John Bakker represents Michigan’s growers and says his state sells fresh but also still has a processing industry. That’s unlike Washington, where the major processors all moved to Peru and other countries. But this uptick in lower-cost foreign imports in the last three years has been significant for Michigan growers.

“We can’t even get the asparagus out of the field for that money, let alone freeze it or can it,” Bakker says. “Looking at the big picture, our consumers need to decide whether they are comfortable with a number of U.S. fruit and vegetable commodities just going out of business and disappearing. We’re on the tipping point of deciding we can do this, or if we just give it up.”

Related Stories:

Liberty Orchards Company will stop production of its famous Aplets and Cotlets in June after 101 years of candy making.

Aplets And Cotlets No More: 101-Year-Old Central Washington Candy Maker Calls It Quits

The company that makes Aplets and Cotlets, the famous jellied fruit candy from central Washington, is calling it quits this June. Served up for Christmas and family reunions alike, the gelatinous apple and apricot treat studded with walnuts was famous far beyond Washington’s borders. Continue Reading Aplets And Cotlets No More: 101-Year-Old Central Washington Candy Maker Calls It Quits

File photo. Washington state's richest residents, including Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, would pay a wealth tax on certain financial assets worth more than $1 billion under a 2021 proposed bill whose sponsor says she is seeking a fair and equitable tax code. Under the bill, starting Jan. 1, 2022, for taxes due in 2023, a 1% tax would be levied not on income, but on "extraordinary" assets ranging from cash, publicly traded options, futures contracts, and stocks and bonds. CREDIT: Elains Thompson/AP

Why Bill Gates Is Investing Big Time In Farmland Across Washington And The Country

Seattle’s technology billionaires are many things: innovators, visionaries, philanthropists and some less polite descriptors, depending on whom you ask. But thanks to some scrupulous digging by industry journal The Land Report, which tracks land ownership across the country, we now know that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has another feather in his multi hyphenated career cap: America’s Top Private Owner of Farmland.  Continue Reading Why Bill Gates Is Investing Big Time In Farmland Across Washington And The Country