(Jan. 28) That cold snap that has dumped snow and ice on much of the country also may push back the start date on California asparagus.

That could be a good thing for buyers, because cold weather also has slowed production in Mexico. Once California asparagus comes on, Mexico could still be going strong, thereby knocking prices down, growers said.

But a likely decrease of 5% to 10% in California asparagus acreage from last year should add buoyancy to asparagus pricing, said Marc Marchini, chairman of the Stockton, Calif.-based California Asparagus Commission and a partner in Stockton-based AM Farms.

Indeed, with acreage estimated between 22,000 and 24,000 this year, California asparagus acreage has fallen drastically since 1999, when it was 36,000, said Cherie Watte, executive director of the commission.

A likely late start aside, the cooler and generally wetter weather in California this winter should make for a good quality crop, grower-shippers said.

“Cool nights improve quality,” said Scott Bins, asparagus manager for Salinas, Calif.-based NewStar Fresh Foods LLC. “We’re expecting a great crop this year.”

As late as Jan. 16, the Salinas crop looked like it would produce on time, perhaps as early as Feb. 10, said Brian Violini of V&V Farms Inc., a Gonzales, Calif.-based asparagus grower for NewStar. “The weather for early January was decent. It was in the 40s for a low, and the days got to 65.”

And on Jan. 16, soil temperatures at one of V&V’s ranches were about 50 degrees. But then the cold snap hit a week later, and the Salinas Valley got some light frost in some areas.

Salinas asparagus usually appears by early to mid-February while asparagus from the Stockton delta and Central Valley comes on a couple of weeks later, grower-shippers said. However, this year, the cold snap could push those dates to mid- to late February in Salinas and as late as the first of March in Stockton, grower-shippers said.

That could be similar to last year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture began reporting sales of asparagus from Salinas by the second week of February 2003 but said there was not enough volume to report an average price until March 17. At that point, 28-pound cartons of bunched green asparagus sold for $20.60 for large and $23.60 for standard.

March 17 was the first pricing data the USDA had for Stockton delta asparagus as well, although the agency reported some sales as early as the first week of March. On March 17 last year, 28-pound cartons of Stockton asparagus sold for $18.50 for large and $21.50 for standard.

This year, January came to a close with lower prices on asparagus from Mexico and Peru, although temperatures in Mexico were forecast to remain lower than average.

On Jan. 27, the USDA said 11-pound cartons of Mexican asparagus sold for $18.50 for large and $18.50-19.50 for standard. At the same time, 11-pound cartons of Peruvian imports sold for $15-16 for large and standard and $13-14 for small.