(April 2) Michigan’s asparagus deal should begin on time, around May 1, and end on time, around the Fourth of July, said John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, DeWitt.

“Demand looks to be excellent,” Bakker said. “Fresh shippers have been very aggressive.”

Quantities in Michigan will be down after last year’s exceptionally big crop, he said. About 25 million pounds are expected to ship this year, down from about 29 million pounds in 2003.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will give a boost to the Michigan asparagus industry by buying excess product and distributing it through nutritional programs, Bakker said.

“We have our share of problems, which is why the USDA program is so important,” Bakker said. “We’re not able to harvest our entire crop.”

Only about 10% of Michigan asparagus goes to the fresh market, but that number has been growing, and Bakker said he expects it to continue growing.

“Fresh sales are up considerably over five or 10 years ago,” Bakker said. “Folks are finding that they like it, and that it’s a good value. Another reason is the year-round availability, and our freight advantage in getting to Eastern markets.”

FUNDING COULD RETURN

Bakker is optimistic that the board will again receive funding from the Select Michigan promotional campaign, sponsored by the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

Last year the campaign ran in Grand Rapids retail stores, and Michigan-grown asparagus enjoyed a 65% utilization rate, Bakker said. Promotions include point-of-purchase materials backed up by print and radio ads.

Bakker said he hopes this year the promotion also will run in Detroit. He said the promotion plays well in a state hard hit economically — one-third of all lost U.S. jobs are Michigan jobs. That fact makes people more likely to support local farmers, he said.

The asparagus deal should get under way around May 5 at Mol Produce Co., Grand Rapids, four or five days earlier than usual, said Dan Mol, the company’s president. About a month before that, Mol will begin selling product grown by one of its packers in southern Indiana. Mol also ships out of Ontario.

“We got a ton of snow this winter, but it was gone by the end of February, and we’ve had moderate temperatures since,” Mol said.

INCREASES PLANNED

Mol Produce, which markets 50% to 60% of all Michigan fresh asparagus, will sell about 20% more asparagus than it did last year, but that increased acreage is coming from its Ontario sheds. The company expects to pack about three million pounds this year, up from 2.5 million last year. Prices are expected to be in the usual $28-34 range for 28-pound cartons, Mol said.

When it comes to demand, Michigan has been spared the travails of its West Coast brethren, Mol said. In the next two years, Mol Produce intends to increase its output by 50% to 60%. The company added two packing sheds in time for this year’s harvest.

“We don’t see Peruvian asparagus here in May and June,” Mol said. “We see it the last two weeks of our deal. When we get our foot in the door of new customers, we don’t lose them. Our asparagus spends two fewer days on the truck, and I think the climate makes it a better product.”

Michigan is “local” to its East Coast, Midwest and Southern customers, compared to California and Washington shippers, Mol said.

Most of Mol’s anticipated new acreage will come in Ontario, where farmers are switching from tobacco to more healthful crops.