After a surge in Mexican volumes that dragged down prices in February and March, asparagus prices appear to be on the rise.

“With ideal weather conditions, the yields in Caborca were at historical highs — up to 25% per acre better than any other year,” said Walter Yager, chief executive officer of Miami-based Alpine Fresh.

Tim Ryan, asparagus manager for Deerfield, Fla.-based Ayco Farms, called the Mexican deal a strange one, with large volumes coming on quickly.

“Good quality and low pricing have made it very difficult for Peru as we can see by the low volume over the last two months,” Ryan said.

“From February through the end of March,” he said, “there were about 400,000 less in volume from Peru compared to last year.”

Peru is returning to the market just in time to compete with local stalks cropping up on schedule in Washington and California.

Good demand, quality

“As we head into the Easter promotional period, prices look good for a change and there seems to be good demand,” said Yager.

Cherie Angulo, executive director of the El Centro-based California Asparagus Commission, said harvesting continues in all production regions and growers report exceptional quality.

“California should produce promotable quantities of high-quality asparagus through June,” Angulo said.

Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission, predicted an April 8 start, and hopes for similar yields to last year, when growers faced challenging weather conditions.

“Some asparagus acres were taken out and some fields have become less productive, but we have some new fields starting to come on,” Schreiber said.

Weather a factor

Asparagus is even making an alarming appearance a month early on the East Coast and into Canada.

“I’ve never experienced a season where we would start before the first of May,” said Randy VandeGuchte, president of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Superior Sales Inc.

“If the weather stays above normal, we may start the 15th to 25th of April,” said VandeGuchte, a grower and shipper of Michigan vegetables.

“We’re concerned we might get started and the weather will turn bad and shut us down for a week or two.”

Even Peru isn’t immune from this year’s wacky weather.

“The crops are doing very well, but the Peruvian coast is having its warmest summer and fall ever,” said Jay Rodriguez, owner of Miami, Fla.-based Crystal Valley Foods.

With Peru asparagus returning to the U.S., Yager expects markets to remain in the high teens for most of the next six months.

Bill Tarleton, director of marketing and communication for Oxnard, Calif.-based Mission Produce Inc. said a 28-pound box of California standard and large asparagus ranged from $40.75-$44.75 on March 20.

He said Mission ended its Mexican deal in early March and expects to continue harvesting in California until early June, when it will move to Peru, where most of its asparagus grows.

“So far, the California crop is in good condition, quality is excellent and demand is very strong,” Tarleton said.

Asparagus becomes staple

Year-round availability and a great nutrition profile have transformed asparagus from an expensive spring treat to a staple in many homes, Tarleton said.

“The nutritional value is huge,” he said. “Just like our avocados, it has helped move asparagus to the top of the list.”

Tracy Wood, sales manager of the Southeast office of Greencastle, Pa.-based Keystone Fruit Marketing, Inc., is also seeing continued growth in retail demand and shelf space.

“We are seeing some cross-promotion and cross-merchandising with asparagus and other commodities in the produce department, such as artichokes and corn,” Wood said.

Fresh asparagus has even been spotted in the meat department.

Higher fuel costs going into the summer are a concern for the entire industry from a production and distribution standpoint, Wood said.

Yager said the industry’s biggest challenge this year may be encouraging retailers to continue driving demand by promoting asparagus, but at a higher price point.

“We need the promotions,” he said, “but we also need prices at $2.29 or $2.49 a pound instead of the $1.99 the retailer may have in mind.”