(July 15) Cold weather in Peru and hail and rain in Mexico is reducing asparagus imports, and distributors who are fielding calls from customers desperate for product are unable to provide an estimate for a return to normalcy.

“I have never seen people calling and just pleading for product like this before,” said Pam Mitchell, sales manager for Empacadora GAB, Hidalgo, Texas.

Mitchell said her premium label was at $27-28 for an 11-pound box on July 14, and the company’s other label was at $25-26. Others shippers said they were quoting prices at $23-26 on standard and large sizes, and $24-28 on jumbos. The U.S. Department of Agriculture on July 14 reported some cartons of standards as high as $28.75.

Mitchell said some buyers are offering $1-2 more per box as an incentive to sell, but price isn’t the issue.

“You could quote $40, but if you don’t have it, it doesn’t mean anything,” she said.

According to the USDA, Peruvian asparagus on July 14 was $23 for 11-pound cartons of jumbos, $20-21 for extra-large, $20-22 for large and $22 for standard.
Mid-July 2003 prices for Mexican asparagus were $22-25 for cartons of standard and $23-25 for large. Peruvian product was $18-20 for cartons of jumbos, $17-18 for extra-large, $17 for large and $18 for standard.

Henry Lehmann, director of produce procurement for Chesterfield, Mo.-based Dierbergs Markets Inc., said the company’s 21 stores were caught short on supplies just once this summer, on the Fourth of July weekend.

Supplies were available the following Monday, said Lehmann, who purchases asparagus from the United Fruit & Produce Co. Inc. That company and Dierbergs’ produce office are at the St. Louis Produce Market.

Looking outside of regular supply channels to supplement needs, however, might prove fruitless, said Lehmann, because shippers are dedicating supplies to their usual customers.

Production in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, typically starts in mid-June, but a month later, some shippers were still seeing loads arrive only every other day. Peruvian imports generally see increases by mid-July, with volumes greatly increasing in August, but the early-season ramp-up is also nonexistent.

“The whole asparagus program, whether it’s Mexico or Peru, is way behind production schedule, and subsequently, the market is at record levels probably for this time of year,” said Thomas Drake, product sales manager for Central American Produce Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla.

That’s making retail promotions scarce, Drake said, but unless current weather trends continue, the situations will adjust pretty quickly.

Domestic supplies took an early leave from the market this year, with Washington shipments ending the first week of July, a week earlier than last year. Michigan’s last f.o.b. report from the USDA was on June 21, when shipments lasted into July last year. California ships year-round, but July brings the start of the off-season; of the 129,000 30-pound units shipped the week of July 7-13, 8,000 were from California’s Salinas Valley.

Domestic supplies will return in February with increased California production, followed by Washington and New Jersey with light supplies in April and Michigan in May.

Two factors are compounding the supply problems: threats of strikes in Peru and lack of trucks in Mexico.

Although a call for a national workers strike by the Marxist labor group General Confederation of Peruvian Workers on July 14 was largely ignored, such strikes can cripple transportation on highways and from airports, both needed to move asparagus from the fields and out of the country, Drake said.

In Mexico, shippers dealing with low supplies can’t send a truck until they have a full load, said Ernie Robles, asparagus commodity manager for Growers Express, Salinas.

Growers Express isn’t just fielding calls from eager retailers, they’re also hearing from truckers who want merchandise to haul.

Riverside Distributing Ltd., Hidalgo, received its first shipments from Mexico during the Memorial Day weekend, two weeks ahead of normal. The growers for the company bypassed their spring harvest, and the first cuttings were available before the rains hit, owner Dave Poiriez said. But since the first of July, hail and rain has killed the momentum, he said.

Lower carton counts can also be attributed to a lack of size on product coming out Guanajuato, he said. Smaller bunches lead to fewer cartons, and there’s an inordinate amount of smaller sizes arriving from Mexico, Poiriez said.

Mitchell said Mexico’s production will continue to be lower than in the past throughout the season, because of less acreage, and newer plantings that haven’t reached production capacity yet.