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Delicate harvest in crisis

Foreign competition is threatening a California tradition.

March 31, 2004|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Stockton — Stockton

Driving by an asparagus field, you'd never guess it was such a demanding crop. In fact, you might not even know it was planted at all. If you didn't know better, all you'd see would be acres of deeply plowed earth. Because the spears need soft earth and no competition from other plants, even during the peak of the season, asparagus fields tend to look like they've never even been planted.

And the way things are going, who knows in a year or two whether they will be? The California asparagus industry, which grows 80% of the nation's fresh asparagus, is in crisis, upended by the gales of global trade. After a string of money-losing harvests, farmers have slashed acreage by a third in the last three years, from 36,000 acres to 24,000, and there is no end in sight.

Families that have been growing asparagus for four generations are facing the possibility they may have to get out of the business altogether. A historic piece of California's farming culture is slipping away.

At the root of the problem is the nature of asparagus itself, which demands as much hand-cultivation and as careful harvesting as the grapes for some rare wine. See for yourself. Stop and get out of the car. Walk over and look closely at the tops of the furrows and you will see the tips of asparagus popping through that bare ground like fat twigs. Asparagus spears grow from clumps of roots called crowns that are buried four to six inches below the surface.

They grow amazingly fast. When the temperature gets into the 70s and 80s, asparagus can shoot up as much as seven inches in 24 hours. Early in the season, say late February to early March, farmers can get by with cutting a field every other day. The rest of the time, it must be done daily, or the spear tips will feather into ferns.

As vigorous as it is, asparagus has a fragile side too. Anything that gets between a spear tip and the air can deform it. The soil needs to be extremely soft and loose. Even the slightest crust can cause the spears to bend.

A recent study commissioned by the California Asparagus Commission spells out the implications: Every year, every furrow in every asparagus field has to be worked 15 to 20 times -- and that doesn't include the up to three months of daily harvesting.

The human touch

Although many crops can be picked by machine in one pass, asparagus must be harvested by hand and in repeated passes.

Workers walk the furrows, judging each spear to see whether it is long enough to be cut that day. To be considered, a spear must be at least 9 inches long. Thrusting an 18-inch blade that looks something like an overgrown weeder deep into the top of the ridge, workers cut off the spear just above the roots, but without damaging the crown. This takes skill.

"A good crew will do more than cut, it will manage the field," says Marc Marchini, a third-generation asparagus farmer and chairman of the California Asparagus Commission. "They'll cut just the long spears and leave the rest for the next day or the day after."

The bottom line for all that handwork, farmers say, is that labor accounts for 75% to 90% of the cost of growing asparagus.

Even though field workers don't earn much for such hard work -- growers say top wages at the peak of the season are $75 to $80 a day -- it is still far more than what is paid in Mexico and Peru, the United States' two largest competitors.

As a result, imports of fresh asparagus have soared 40% in the last five years, while the average amount earned by California farmers has plummeted. In 2002, farmers averaged only 80 cents a pound for fresh asparagus, well below the $1 a pound they say they need just to break even.

Particularly hard hit has been the Imperial Valley, where the crop has virtually disappeared. Once the first to get their asparagus to market and reap the high early season prices, Imperial Valley farmers now see those rewards go to farmers just across the border in Mexico. Where 5,500 acres of asparagus were planted in the area two years ago, fewer than 1,000 remain.

"The Imperial Valley is just a microcosm of what is happening to us, less dramatically, in the rest of the state," says Marchini.

"I have to be honest. I'm not sure the industry will ever come back to anywhere near where it was before. There is just too much competition. What we're trying to do now is just maintain our niche. The growers that can survive and ride this downfall will probably do OK, eventually."

Eddie Zuckerman, president and chief executive of Zuckerman-Heritage, one of the state's largest growers, says that his company has already cut asparagus acreage nearly in half and that if the market doesn't turn around soon, it will slash even more.

"We've already cut our asparagus acreage from 1,100 acres three years ago to 600," he says. "If the deal doesn't turn around this year, we'll probably go down to just a couple of hundred acres."

Zuckerman says total acreage for the state may have to go below 20,000 before asparagus becomes profitable again.

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