Asparagus farmers balance bigger yields, higher costs

Asparagus farmers balance bigger yields, higher costs

PASCO, Wash. — If you want to make an asparagus farmer wince, ask for the skinny stuff.

Some celebrity chefs have incorrectly called it “baby asparagus,” but the size of the asparagus has nothing to do with age, said farmer Gary Larsen.

“If you want the flavor of asparagus, get the bigger, the fatter ones,” he said. “For the ultimate eating pleasure, go with the bigger ones.”

Farmers also receive less for skinnier spears.

“All of us asparagus growers just cringe when people say you want the skinny stuff,” he said. “I send it in, but I get very little for it and you see the stores selling it for $3.99.”

Based near Pasco, Larsen is one of roughly 45 to 60 farmers in Washington raising asparagus on a total of 4,000 to 4,500 acres. He is chairman of the Washington Asparagus Commission.

Larsen started harvesting on his 325 acres about April 8, a typical start, but later than some seasons when he’s been able to start the last week of March, he said. Harvest will continue until about June 1.

About 120 workers were in Larsen’s fields. At the height of the season, the number will peak at 150 workers.

Labor is more than 55 percent of Larsen’s expenses, he said. The industry won’t feel the full effects of a requirement to provide paid sick leave until next year, he said.

Cutters typically arrive on Larsen’s farm for the day at 2 a.m., and finish about 10 or 11 a.m. They wear headlights while they work. The workers set the hours, Larsen said.

“If they’re not here by five o’clock, that’s late,” he said.

The industry has discussed mechanization, but is still searching for options, Larsen said. A nearby company’s mechanical harvester shows promise, but hasn’t entered the marketplace.

Such machinery would cost $500,000, he estimated. Larsen said he would need three, plus a spare.

“With asparagus, you’ve got to cut it every day,” he said.

Asparagus is a perennial crop. Fields can go for 12 to 13 years, but have reached 18 years, Larsen said.

The plant can grow several inches per day, Larsen said, and 10 inches in hotter weather.

Asparagus seed costs roughly $1,000 per pound. The tiny, BB-like seed is planted 9-10 inches deep. It costs roughly $2,500 per acre just for seed, Larsen said.

The year is off to a slow start due to weather, but should pick up, said Hector M. Lopez, foreman at Larsen’s farm. Insect and disease pressure could increase with hotter weather in May.

Larsen typically yields more than 10,000 pounds per acre, but hopes to reach 15,000 pounds per acre this year.

“We’re going to try,” Lopez said.

Newer varieties make it possible, Larsen said. When he first started raising asparagus in 1985, good yields were 3,000 pounds an acre and farmers hoped to reach 6,000 pounds. That yield wouldn’t fly economically today with higher minimum wage for workers to cut the spears.

Mexican asparagus in grocery stores goes for roughly $4.99 per pound in Seattle and $3.99 per pound in Pasco. Purple asparagus — a sweeter option that turns green when cooked — was $9 per pound in Seattle, Larsen said. He has about an acre of purple asparagus.

For farmers to break even, they need to receive about 80 cents per pound, Larsen says. How much they receive depends on whether they pack the asparagus themselves or sell it to a shipper-packer.

Larsen’s son, Tanner, 22, hopes to take over the operation by the time he’s 25 or 26. He grades the crop and works as a mechanic on the farm’s trucks.

Tanner doesn’t foresee doing things much differently from his father.

“Eventually, you do have to make changes,” he said. “But right now, what we’re doing works. There’s no point in changing anything.”

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