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IN SEASON

Spears Appear

February 22, 1996|RUSS PARSONS

Think this has been a mild winter? Asparagus is already being harvested in Northern California. In a normal year, that doesn't happen until March.

But this has been no normal year. In the Sacramento Delta around Stockton, in the San Joaquin Valley and in the Salinas Valley, fields are being cleaned and the first green shoots are being cut. In the warmer Imperial Valley, this has been going on since January.

So far, from all reports, quality looks very good, though quantity could be a problem.

"We won't really start full production until around Monday," says Scott Horton, sales manager of Merrill Farms, which has fields in the Soledad area. "But the samples we've got coming in now are looking real nice; the ' 'gras' is looking good."

In the last couple of weeks, wholesale prices have dropped from about $3 a pound to between $1.25 and $1.50 a pound. Some stores are starting to offer asparagus as a special at $1.99.

"The market's really good right now [for growers]," says Mario de Francesco III, general manager of De Francesco Brothers Ranch in the San Joaquin Valley town of Firebaugh. "Supply is short. The Mexican deal [harvest] was very short all year long. And it looks like it might be that way in the Imperial Valley too."

Ironically, one of the factors limiting the Imperial Valley crop has been the mild weather.

"Our crop is a lot lighter this year than last year," says David Bushey of Apio produce, which has fields in the Imperial Valley. "The season went a little longer than normal last year and that stressed plants. Plus, we haven't really had the heat as much as we normally do.

"Last year by the end of January we were cranking out 30,000 pounds a day. This year at the end of January we were doing about 7,000 pounds and we haven't hit our peak yet."

The shadow of last year hangs over the northern fields as well. After getting off to a start as early as this year's, March rains in '95 caused flooding that brought an early end to the season. In some cases, it even washed away fields, requiring planting of new crops (asparagus is a perennial that grows from an underground root system called a corm).

"How much will last year affect this harvest?" asks de Francesco. "That's the question a lot of people are asking right now."

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