(Jan. 28, 2:31 p.m.) The California asparagus industry expects an excellent year in terms of yield and quality, though water and high temperatures have some growers slightly worried.

A shortage of precipitation in growing areas has some growers concerned about the future of their asparagus crops.

“We expect the harvest to be pretty typical,” said Steve Couture, partner in Couture Farms, Kettleman City. “But we haven’t had any rain since December, so it’s not ideal conditions.”

This was a sentiment echoed by Dan Stevens, sales manager for The Nunes Co. Inc., Salinas.

“We haven’t had a lot of rain, and we’ve had some record highs,” he said. “It’s warmer than usual and I don’t know if it’s going to bring the asparagus or not.”

Warm temperatures can cause the crop to mature earlier than is ideal, said Leo Rolandelli, president of Jacobs, Malcolm & Burtt Inc., San Francisco.

“If it’s too warm, it could bring the crop on earlier than projected,” he said. “That could cause a real effect on the value coming in to compete with our southern neighbors.”

The majority of asparagus on the market now is from Peru and Mexico.

Despite the above average temperatures, there has been frost in many growing areas, and growers are hopeful this will delay the emergence of the plants.

“We’re hopeful that we did get the required chill hours to make sure everything is dormant,” said Tom Tjerandsen, promotions coordinator for the California Asparagus Commission, Holtville.

Aside from an early emergence, the weather generally does not have much effect on asparagus, Couture said.

“The asparagus is not affected by weather the way other crops are, because it’s grown underground,” Couture said.

As such, growers are expecting a high-quality crop, said Jeff Post, asparagus commodity manager for Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville.

“We’re expecting to start (harvesting) in mid-February, with excellent quality, good color and straight spears,” he said.

Other growers agreed with this prediction.

“I’m confident we’ll have typical good quality,” Couture said. “We estimate a good harvest.”

California growers expect the harvest to begin in early to mid-February, peaking in March, with shipments continuing through the end of June, Tjerandsen said.

“Mother Nature has smiled upon the asparagus beds,” Tjerandsen said.

Drop in acreage

While yields are expected to be good, there is likely to be a drop in California production, with fewer growers producing asparagus, said Cheri Watte Angulo, executive director of the asparagus commission.

“We’re looking at 40 million pounds this year,” she said. “That’s down significantly from our 2000 high of 94 million.”

Asparagus production has decreased for a number of reasons, including water shortages, profitability and loss of growing land, Watte Angulo said.

Profitability of asparagus crops has taken a hit in recent years with increased imports from Peru and Mexico, Couture said.

“(The asparagus industry in California) is slowly being torn out and will be a very small factor in the future,” he said. “All of March and early April are dominated by Mexico and that affects our prices.”

Labor available

This decrease in production, coupled with a slow economy, means there will be no shortage of labor for the California asparagus industry this year, Tjerandsen said.

“With the decline (of the economy), we find we have access to a substantial labor pool as a lot of people are looking for work,” he said.

An early growing season also swells the labor pool for asparagus growers.

“We’re always concerned about labor because we have one of the most labor-intensive commodities,” Watte Angulo said. “(But) we’re one of the first commodities in production cycles and we haven’t seen severe shortages.”

Especially in the Central Valley, there is little competition for labor, Couture said.

“By the time you’re into April, you start seeing lettuce and other field crops, but for the first two-thirds of the harvest, there’s very little competition,” Couture said.

Couture is not sure if the labor pool will be as large as it has been in the past, with more disincentives on guest workers coming from Mexico, but he said he believes the high number of unemployed workers in the area will make up the difference.

Marketing

With a good yield of quality asparagus, the asparagus commission is focused on promoting consumption across the board, though there is a particular emphasis on the Web and foodservice ends of the spectrum, Watte Angulo said.

“The Web site is our main tool. It’s what a lot of consumers are using these days,” Watte Angulo said. “I’m a mom of small children and if I have something in mind to make, I come home and research a recipe online. I figure if I do it, there are a lot of people who do.”

To this end, the commission adds at least three recipes a year to its site, all of which are also released to food publications to integrate asparagus into meal plans, she said.

“All year long I’m looking at food trends and how we can include asparagus into that trend,” Watte Angulo said. “We hire a recipe developer and look at new ways to get asparagus on to the American public’s plate.”

The commission is promoting asparagus consumption in foodservice through backroom contests, menu clip-ons and recipe contests, Tjerandsen said.

“We’re working with a number of mid-level family style chains to help them find interesting recipes that they can use to offer these intriguing items to their patrons,” he said. “Things like this generate lots of interest.”