(July 11) The decision to halt asparagus processing in two Washington plants could force a price decline in the commodity’s fresh form.

The Toppenish, Wash., office of Del Monte Foods and Seneca Foods Corp., Walla Walla, Wash., made the announcement in early July. Both plants will be idle every year in April, May and June, when asparagus used to be processed.

Alan Schreiber, the Eltopia-based Washington Asparagus Commission’s executive director, said a resulting accumulation of asparagus crop would have to be plowed out or sent to the fresh asparagus market.

That means, he said, fresh asparagus prices will likely decrease.

“How much is the question,” Schreiber said. “Having millions of pounds of asparagus on the fresh market has a tendency to press the market.”

Import prices, mostly from Peru, during the second week of July for 11-pound cartons bunched large, standard and small were $16-17. Mexico crossings through south Texas saw prices of 11-pound cartons and crates of bunched all-green standard at $19-20, while large were priced at $18-19.

Asparagus is Peru’s second-largest export behind coffee, Schreiber said. There were 60,700 metric tons exported last year, and 65,000 are expected in 2003. Schreiber said 82% of these exports go to the U.S., where 93,340 metric tons are produced each year.

Schreiber said a U.S. policy intended to decrease the production of coca and opium has encouraged Peruvian farmers to grow and sell asparagus to the U.S. Instead of curbing drug sales, though, Schreiber said the policy is producing too much asparagus.

“That was laughed at down there,” he said. “The same people that produce opium and coca are not the same people producing asparagus.”

Del Monte, Schreiber said, plans to move its asparagus processing operations to Peru.

Labor costs there, Schreiber said, are 8% of what the U.S. asparagus industry pays its employees. Peruvians take home about $5.50 per day at some processing plants, he said.