(April 11) STOCKTON, Calif. — Central California asparagus growers have one word to describe the current asparagus market: grim.

Many have mowed or taken a disc to their crops, destroying the spears but allowing for a second crop to pop up in a few weeks. Others have called it quits for the season and plan to take farms out of production.

Asparagus growers describe the problems they face this season as multiple and devastating. The result is weak demand and below break-even prices.

Prices have ranged from a high of $45 per 28-pound carton of imported product in February to as low as $15 in early April for domestic product.

“The prices being paid are disgusting,” said farmer Richard Bozzano, whose product is marketed by All State Packers Inc., Lodi, Calif.

For retailers, the low markets make for attractive promotions. Ed Pohlman, asparagus category manager for Schnuck Distributing Inc., St. Louis, the buying arm of Schnuck Markets Inc., said the Schnuck chain is working hard to move asparagus.

Bozzano said growers have faced tough markets the past three years. To survive, some are picking up farms in Mexico where labor is cheaper, he said. Bozzano, who has been in the asparagus business since 1968, farms 600 acres of the crop. He said he dreads the thought of having to lay off his farm and packing crews.

Cherie Watte, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission, Stockton, said she is looking at the conditions that caused the market problems and seeking solutions. Meanwhile, the commission will continue its marketing programs appropriated in the 2002 budget, including a national display contest, radio advertising and point-of-purchase materials, Watte said. However funding comes from per-carton assessments, and with shipments down, that could affect programs in the future, she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service reports that as of April 9, total shipments of asparagus from California this season stand at 1.2 million 30-pound cartons compared to 1.9 million 30-pound cartons in 2001.

Shipments from the Stockton-Delta area stand at 561,000 30-pound cartons this season, compared to 821,000 30-pound cartons as of April 9, last year.

Imported asparagus stood at slightly more than 5 million 30-pound cartons as of April 9, compared to 4.3 million cartons shipped by the same date last year. Within the import category, shipments from Mexico reached slightly more than 2.8 million 30-pound cartons on April 9, compared to slightly less than 2.8 million cartons by April 9 last year.

A COOL EASTER

The problems this season began before Easter when cool weather slowed the crop and caused central California growers to miss the pre-Easter market. As demand declined following the holiday, shipments continued to roll in from Mexico, which had a longer than normal season this year.

If that wasn’t tough enough, unusually warm weather hit the Central Valley in early April, speeding up the asparagus crop and forcing harvest at the worst possible time.

“It turned warm, and the crop went crazy,” said Bill Salmon, manager of Stockton-based ABF Farm Services, which grows for another Stockton-based firm, Kings Crown Packing Inc.

The winter market for asparagus was quite strong, with prices in early February hitting as high as $45 f.o.b. for a 28-pound carton out of Mexico and the desert. By March 29, prices had dropped to $26.75 f.o.b. for the same carton out of the San Joaquin Valley, according to the USDA.

By April 9 the same carton sold for $16.75-18.75 f.o.b., also out of the San Joaquin Valley.

Growers said prices fell as low as $15 a carton in early April.

“It is below our cost,” Salmon said. “I can’t cut and pack the crop for what it is going for.”

BREAK EVEN OR BREAK OUT

Salmon said growers need to receive about $25 a carton f.o.b. just to break even.

Prices had come up a few dollars per carton the week of April 8, but it wasn’t enough to make the deal profitable yet, Salmon said.

The Mexican season is now over, but the Washington asparagus season begins about April 20. That further clouds the picture for central California growers, especially if the Washington crop is a big one.

Salmon said that the excellent quality of this year’s crop makes matters more frustrating. “I’ve never seen it as good,” he said.

The San Joaquin Delta asparagus crop runs through about May 20. The Salinas asparagus crop, which tends to go longer into May, also faces unprofitable markets.

Salmon said one remedy to the current glut is to move product faster. That requires a lowering of asparagus prices at retail, he said.

“Consumers won’t buy it at the $2 (a pound) range,” Salmon said. But if the price is lowered to $1.39-1.50, consumers will buy it readily, he said.

Watte noted that, according to an April 11 telephone survey of retail prices for asparagus at major supermarkets, she has found per-pound prices ranging from 49 cents to $3.49.