Even industry leaders acknowledge that outsiders might look at California’s shrinking asparagus industry with some trepidation. After all, acreage across the Golden State has shrunk from 36,000 in 2000 to 12,000 today.
But there are different ways of looking at that shrinkage, and some are positive, said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the El Centro-based California Asparagus Commission.
“It’s a very different industry, but at this level, we are able to satisfy the needs of the market and maintain prices.”
There has been a cost, she said.
“The commission’s income is one-third of what we were before, and we continue to make a lot of adjustments,” Watte Angulo said. “ ... It definitely has been a good experience, where we can provide a consistent and quality product to the market during our season.”
Growers acknowledge the downsizing, but they say the trend has flattened out.
“There’s less asparagus being produced in California, but as far as acreage, it may be hitting a bottom,” said Wayne Gularte, a partner with Gonzalez, Calif.-based Rincon Farms. “There’s a lot more guys planting lately. With that being said, the market may be leveling off and holding steady for the near future.”
Kettleman City-based Couture Farms dropped from 360 to 80 acres since 2009.
“It’s practically a hobby,” said Steve Couture, a partner in the operation. “We dropped it because of the water supply and we haven’t committed to replanting. Five years ago, we had an additional 240 acres. We’ve been as high as 360. Then in 2009, we took out 240, because we didn’t see it as the most efficient use of a very short water year.”
The returns didn’t seem worth the effort, Couture said.
“There were concerns that California was not able to command very much of a premium, and there were always going to be downward pressures at the end of the Mexico deal and it was a marketing challenge,” he said.
Those who remained in the deal probably are glad they did, Couture said.
“Acreage is probably half the peak in California, and that’s helped that demand exceeds supply, and the price has stayed good,” he said.
Marc Marchini, a partner with Stockton, Calif.-based A.M. Farms and president of the asparagus commission, asparagus acreage could increase.
“I’m kind of expecting it to go up a little but not dramatically,” he said. “Some are taking out acreage that’s old. This is beneficial because we’re not getting production. Newer acreage will pick up the production level in the next couple of years.”
Growing techniques have led to more volume on smaller plots of land, which helps the state’s overall production, Marchini said.
Los Angeles-based Gourmet Trading Co. all but completely got out of the California asparagus deal, said Julia Inestroza, marketing and merchandising manager.
“We don’t do a whole lot with California anymore,” she said. “We had an opportunity about six years ago to get into the Washington market when a canning facility closed. Washington was known as the first market. We went up there and built a new state-of-the-art packing facility. And we represent up to 40% of Washington State fresh market.”
For those who remain, there are advantages, said Cruz Carrera, asparagus operations director with Oxnard, Calif.-based Mission Produce Inc.
“In California, because of the lack of overall acreage, the market is fairly strong,” he said.
James Paul, salesman for Greg Paul Produce Sales Inc., Stockton, Calif., said shippers are able to capitalize on better pricing.
“I think we have a lot more willingness to listen about what’s going on in our industry and what it’s going to take for us to stay involved,” he said.
California retailers typically are aggressive in promoting the crop, Paul said.