(July 2) MIAMI — Supplies of imported asparagus will be light well into July as cool temperatures hold back the summer upswing in volumes from southern Peru, as well as shipments from the smaller asparagus deal in central Mexico’s mountain region.

That means importers, who start their Peru business in mid-June or handle Peruvian asparagus year-round and increase shipments at the start of summer, won’t compete with domestic production in the early season. Market prices quickly reflected the supply situation.

“On June 2, the most common f.o.b. price in Miami was $11-12, for the standard large (11-pound carton), and on June 30, the most common price was $17,” said Landt Cowan, director of imports in the Miami branch of Lakeland-based Pacific Heartland Ltd.

“There’s an opportunity to begin early this year, because Washington was early and left a void, and there’s rain in the northeast, so even local markets like New Jersey have been affected,” said John Barmmer, director of marketing for Bounty Fresh LLC.

SHIPMENTS UP

Despite the supply hitch, Barmmer said overall shipments from Peru are up this year, but opportunities to take advantage of the shortened domestic season have been hampered by Peru’s weather.

According to the Agriculture Marketing Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 350,000 pounds of Peruvian asparagus arrived in the U.S. the last week of June 2002. Sshipments were so light no figures were reported during the same time frame this year.

“Supplies are expected to be light the next two, three weeks,” said Eric Crawford, president of Produce-ing Results International, Fort Lauderdale, on July 1.

“What’s causing the higher market also is that California is usually shipping, and is finished, as is Washington and Michigan. The domestic market is finished, for all purposes.”

Tom Drake, vice president and product sales manager for Central American Produce, Pompano Beach, said projections for June called for a 40% drop in shipments. Although the drop won’t be as severe in July, Drake said Peru won’t post significant increases in shipments until September.

“The spot market for prime sizes is $18, and you’ve got jumbos anywhere from $22-25, and even the extra large is holding steady, even though that might be the weaker of the sizes,” Drake said. “Extra large, for whatever reason, is the least desirable size right now, but because of the shortage of jumbos, it is selling.”

Drake said the dearth of jumbos has brought prices in the low $20s at his company for imported asparagus, and that he heard about the $25 price quote from a competitor for Mexican asparagus coming through south Texas.

According to the USDA’s marketing service, 11-pound cartons of large asparagus from Peru was $17 and small was $16 on July 1. Cartons of large asparagus from Mexico was $15-16 and cartons of standard size were $16-17.

Cool weather also slowed June production in 2002. Prices in late June 2002 were $15-16 for a carton of large asparagus and $16-17 for standards.

FEW PROMOTIONS PLANNED

Despite the wait for seasonal supplies, shippers don’t expect surges in demand as retailers focus on summer stone fruit and melons in the produce aisles.

“Everybody that I know is getting half of what they normally get (from Peru) right now, if they’re lucky,” Crawford said. “I don’t know if it’s that way across the board, but that’s what I’m hearing. The good thing is that most retailers aren’t looking to promote asparagus as a high priority at this time. Stone fruit from California is in more promotions.”

Barmmer, however, said wet and cold spring weather has cut supplies of numerous vegetable crops, causing retailers to pin their hopes on the new Peru asparagus crop.

Although asparagus is shipped from Peru to the U.S. every month, September and October are the peak export months, and supplies dwindle in January.

Last year, Peru exported about 8.3 million 11-pound cases to the U.S., and exporters there expect to increase that 16% this year, said Dan Wahl, president of United Fresh International Inc. Wahl also is co-chairman of the Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association.

Shippers expect Mexico and Caribbean imports to stay strong with increasing per capita consumption in the U.S. Consumption averaged 0.8 pounds from 1996-2000, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, but consumption hit 1 pound per capita in 2002 and is expected to stay at that level this year.

SHIPPING PROBLEMS

Wahl and other shippers said the delayed start won’t affect overall volumes, but transportation will be an issue.

“With the volume they’re expecting out of Peru, there will be a shortage of cargo flights,” Wahl said. “ … You have to understand there’s a lot of air lift (cargo flights) down there, but we don’t think it will be enough to compensate for all of the volume. Therefore, there will be a delay on some shipments, but everybody who’s got their deal together right should be all right.”

Cowan said shipping by air has become more problematic in recent years as security concerns and documentation have increased, along with fuel prices and export volumes.

“It’s not uncommon to have $1.30 or $1.40 per kilo to bring it to Miami during the holiday season,” Cowan said. “That’s almost $7 a box, just for air freight. It doesn’t help us. It doesn’t help the growers, obviously, some who are operating at a break-even level or at a loss and have to average it out through the season.”

Crawford said technology for controlled-atmosphere containers for ocean vessels has made the longer water routes more desirable, but the war in Iraq has diverted many of those containers.