(Nov. 19, 2:34 p.m.) Prices for Peruvian asparagus could top $20 for an 11-pound box as holiday demand increases, but they may not hit last year’s highs, importers said.

“Last year’s highs were in the mid- to high 20s,” said Steve Espinosa, vice president of sales for Miami-based Fru-Veg Marketing Inc. “This year’s will probably be in the low 20s.”

Markets were steady — in the $16-17 range — the week of Nov. 17, when Fru-Veg was bringing in the majority of its Peruvian asparagus by air, Espinosa said.

Not only holiday pull, but also a volume decline later this fall when production switches from southern to northern Peru, should exert upward pressure on prices, Espinosa said.

“The markets are in decent shape for this time of year,” said Curtis DeBerry, owner of Progreso Produce Ltd., Boerne, Texas.

Volumes were expected to increase when the first West Coast vessel shipments arrive the week of Nov. 24, DeBerry said.

That’s about a week later than usual, and means importers won’t be able to take full advantage of Thanksgiving demand, he said.

But despite lower volumes on hand for the holiday, prices should only rise moderately, DeBerry predicted.

“Retailers prepared for the shortage,” he said. “They’ve already adjusted the price up to reduce movement in stores.”

On the East Coast, demand was a little light in mid-November because of a glut of boat shipments, said Paul Auerbach, president of South Hackensack, N.J.-based Maurice A. Auerbach Inc.

Auerbach, whose company imports only by air, said more companies are switching to boat because of the high cost of fuel.

On Nov. 18, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a price of $16 for 5-kilogram cartons of standard-sized bunched green asparagus from Peru, down from $17-18 last year at the same time.

Progreso expected to ship about 20-25% less Peruvian asparagus this season because of lower yields, DeBerry said.

In the region Fru-Veg sources from, however, volumes are up thanks to excellent growing weather, Espinosa said.

Espinosa reported good quality and size profile, with sizes peaking on standards and larges.

DeBerry reported great quality with abundant standard-size and a few extra-larges shipping.

Quality has been lower on the East Coast because of the higher percentage of boat shipments, Auerbach said.

“There’s a lot of marginal product around the market,” he said.

The shelf-life of boat-shipped Peruvian asparagus is not as long as it is on air-shipped produce, Auerbach said.