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Market Watch: Hard times for California asparagus

March 13, 2010 |  8:00 am


The long ranks of asparagus bunches standing at attention at the Zuckerman stalls at local farmers markets look much the same as in previous years, and the green, herbaceous spears are just as tender and delicious. But according to Roscoe Zuckerman, who grows in Holt, just west of Stockton, it may be getting close to the last stand for the San Joaquin Delta asparagus crop, a California tradition emblematic of springtime for more than a century.

Farmers often cry that the sky is falling when they are really just experiencing a cyclical downturn in markets, but hard facts back up Zuckerman's concern. California still grows about 11,500 acres of asparagus, estimates Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission. But this is down from 20,200 in 2007, and 40,900 in 2000. Twenty years ago, California produced 62% of the asparagus consumed in the United States; now its share is close to 10%, Angulo says.

The problem for California farmers is that labor for harvest, sorting and packing accounts for three-quarters of their cost of raising asparagus, and Mexico and Peru, which have much lower labor expenses, are able to sell far more cheaply. These two countries thus have come to dominate the United States market for most of the year.

Although asparagus thrives in many districts around California, from the Imperial Valley in the desert to Salinas near the coast, the primary growing area, with more than 7,000 acres, is the San Joaquin Delta. The peat soils, rich in organic matter, produce an abundant, tender, flavorful crop. The season typically starts in late February and ends sometime between mid-May and early June; the peak for quality and quantity is right now. Read more here in David Karp's weekly Market Watch report:

Photo credit: Asparagus grown by Zuckerman's Farm in Stockton, at the Santa Monica farmers market. (David Karp / For the Times)