(May 14) GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Michigan asparagus shippers, forced to delay their fresh harvest by a week following a May 3 freeze, expect high markets to continue as cold temperatures hold back harvest in Washington.

Despite the freeze, which wiped out an estimated 10% of the overall Michigan crop, quality is excellent, and the fresh asparagus harvest started the week of May 10.

“Most fields froze down to the ground, and we suspect some froze below the ground,” said John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, DeWitt, on May 12. “We’re finally into what I would call good production at this point.”

Dan Mol, president of Mol Produce Co. Inc., Grand Rapids, said his company started packing Michigan asparagus on May 13. He said he was selling Indiana asparagus for $38-40 for 28-pound pyramid cartons, an increase of about $10 from last year’s prices.

“With the heat they had in California, they’re finishing early, and Washington has had problems with the sandstorm and cold temperatures, so we’ve got demands exceeding supply at this time,” Mol said on May 12.

A late April windstorm and cold temperatures in Washington will cut production there 35% to 40%, said Dan Holmes, manager of the Washington-Oregon Asparagus Growers Association, Pasco, Wash. Washington produced 608,000 cwt. on 16,000 acres in 2003, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“There just isn’t any asparagus available,” said Holmes, quoting prices for 28-pound pyramids at $34-36. Holmes said shipments will pick up again the week of May 17, unless an expected warming of temperatures doesn’t happen.

Even with warmer temperatures, however, the Washington asparagus deal won’t return to normalcy, said Steve Woiblet, partner in Woiblet’s Produce Sales and Marketing LLC, Walla Walla, Wash. Shippers in Washington hit the market early this year, with large volumes immediately following Easter, and volumes for the season peaked early, Woiblet said.

“We shipped heavy volumes, and we probably shipped our peaks the first 2½ weeks. Stockton (Calif.) did the same,” he said. “… Normally, we go to June 10-15, but I think this year we’ve seen too much energy go out of the plants too early, and I think we’ll be lucky to ship to the end of June.”

Washington shippers had good retail ad support lined up, but they’re unable to fill orders, Woiblet said.

That’s good news for Michigan shippers, but it’s not known how much of the early season losses — mostly in asparagus meant for processing — will affect the fresh market as processors look to fill their needs.

“We have excellent quality right now,” Mol said. “The weather is just ideal now, and it’s growing fast. When it grows fast, it has that nice green color and it’s very tender."