(Feb. 6) The shape of the California asparagus industry has significantly scaled back in recent years, due to enhanced import competition, rising production costs and lack of labor.

The changing landscape of the California deal is most evident in declining asparagus volumes. In 2008, production is projected to total 50 million pounds, a 10-million-pound drop from 2007, said Cherie Watte, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission, Stockton.

Indeed, asparagus imports continue trending higher, as 2006 imports escalated 11% to a record 265 million pounds, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

Many growers are transitioning to other crops, such as wheat and corn, that are less costly to produce and are a guaranteed income source, said Leo Rolandelli, president of San Francisco-based Jacobs, Malcolm & Burtt Inc.

While some fear a continued demise if problems persist, several growers agree the California asparagus industry is strengthening as the smaller players bow out.

“Entities are becoming more diversified in their operations and asparagus is becoming a smaller operation, but you’re not seeing a mass exodus,” Watte said.

Jeff Post, asparagus commodity manager for Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms is expecting steady supplies from 2008 production, which typically begins around Feb. 14 and runs through July 4 for Ocean Mist.

Production was a little behind, however, and substantial asparagus volumes should be available by the end of February and ramp up in time for Easter, which falls early this year on March 23, Post said Feb. 6.

“Asparagus market conditions are very volatile and heavily affected by demand, supply and weather,” he said. “This could work in our favor for once, because Easter is early this year. Hopefully, the price will be up and the volume will kick in and the growers can finally make some money.”

On Feb. 5, 28-pound cartons of Mexican asparagus ranged from $22.75 to $32.75, depending on the size, according to USDA numbers.

Rolandelli, however, was predicting prices in the high 30s or low 40s for 28-pound cartons, once California entered the market.

FARM BILL

The Senate’s version of the farm bill allocates $7.5 million to the domestic fresh asparagus industry, according to Senate farm bill documents.

So if a compromise is reached between the Senate and House of Representatives, California should get some support.

California growers would use the anticipated money to produce more efficiently — with improved irrigation technology, new varieties and mechanical harvesting — which would ultimately make asparagus a long-term, more competitive product, Watte said.

“This whole concept has been developing in the industry for years — I’ve spent three years working on it in Congress,” Watte said. “Since it’s an election year, maybe they’ll try and get this business done early. We’d just like to know, because this program is a fairly significant component.”