Fresh asparagus marks start of growing season
For Amado Becerra, it isn’t spring until the asparagus ferns are growing tall in his 4-acre field east of Quincy.
The arrival of the tall, green spears came about a week earlier than normal this year, said Becerra, who has been growing the perennial at Becerra Gardens since 2003. Becerra made his first cut on April 17.
“It’s as good as ever,” he said. “The quality is excellent.”
Following a mild winter and warm spring, asparagus growers across the state had a record early start to the 70-day season, said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission. A grower in Franklin County began cutting on March 23, he said. Farmers in the southern counties typically make their first cuts around April 5.
About a quarter of the way into the asparagus season, the commission is predicting a good year for the asparagus market, which appears to be on an upward trend in the state after a rough patch in the 1990s.
In 1990, Washington was the top grower of asparagus in the nation, producing 100 million pounds, Schreiber said. In 2013, the state produced 15.7 million pounds for an 85 percent decline, he said.
The decline was caused, in part, by free trade agreements and a growing market in Peru, Schreiber said.
Last year was the first time in 24 years the state saw an increase in production – 18 million pounds in 2014, Schreiber said. Last year’s harvest was worth about $13.7 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And, in more good news, for 10 of the last 11 years, asparagus has seen consistently record-breaking prices, Schreiber said. In 2002, asparagus was selling at 45 cents a pound; in 2013 it sold at 95 cents a pound, he said.
Only a portion into the season, Schreiber is predicting another record-breaking year on the price side.
“Prices this year are higher than they have ever been,” Schreiber said.
Washington farmers will harvest about 5,000 acres of asparagus this spring. While the Quincy area has only a handful of farmers growing asparagus, Schreiber points to new crops this year in George, Mattawa and Moses Lake.
While growers over the years have been reluctant to plant asparagus because it is difficult to attract skilled workers to the labor-intensive crop, new high-yield varieties and intensive planting techniques are dramatically increasing yields, he said.
Schreiber expects to see more state farmers planting asparagus in the future.
“I’m a fan of something that makes growers money,” he said.
— By Jill FitzSimmons, firstname.lastname@example.org