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Asparagus Season Brings Choices For California Shoppers

Consumers face choices as California asparagus production declines.

 

Green and purple spears of asparagus are poking out of the ground in several regions of California.

But according to the California Asparagus Commission, production of the vegetable has declined 15 to 20 percent annually since 2000.

In 1997, farmers planted twenty-four thousand acres of the pointy green spears in San Joaquin County, a major asparagus growing region. By 2015 that number fell to three thousand acres.

Bob Ferguson farms asparagus in the San Joaquin Delta. His produce ends up in major grocery stores and he says he also sells directly to a Japanese buyer.

Ferguson points out that during California's asparagus season, supermarkets and big box stores will stock the produce section with asparagus from Mexico as long as they think consumers will buy it.

Unsurprisingly, he's not a fan of the competition. He argues much of it is less flavorful than asparagus grown in the Delta.

"What kind of asparagus did you see in the stores a couple of weeks ago?" he asks. "A lot of small stuff that looks brushy, seedy. The quality just isn't there."

Ultimately, says Ferguson, it's the consumer that's "got to be able to sit down and know the difference simply by the taste."

Asparagus is a labor-intensive crop. It's hand-picked and then it's got to be washed and trimmed in the packing house.

UC Davis agricultural economist Dan Sumner says the story of declining asparagus production in California is a story about labor costs.

"Asparagus is vulnerable to high wages because it's a very labor intensive crop," he notes. "And in a tight labor market, wages go up."

That translates to higher costs for California asparagus growers. "And not only high in general but high relative to potential competitors," Sumner explains.

Especially asparagus growers operating in next-door neighbor Mexico, where workers earn far lower wages. 

Mexico has been able to "adopt practices that allow them to compete on quality and come in at a lower in price than what most California growers can do," points out Sumner.

For several years, many supermarkets have launched marketing efforts to highlight California-grown produce.

While food shoppers may like the sound of that, it's not clear they're willing to pay very much for it. 

He points to the textile industry for a comparison.

"We could imagine paying seventy-five dollars for a shirt or a blouse because we want textile workers to make twenty-five dollars an hour," Sumner points out.

But textile workers don't earn those kinds of wages at this time. And most manufactured textile products Americans use come in from elsewhere in the world.

When it comes to California produce, Sumner says consumers will decide with their wallets what farm labor wages they're willing to support.

In surveying five grocery stores near downtown Sacramento, this reporter found asparagus prices that ranged from $2.99 - $6.99 a pound. Some labels read "product of the U.S.A." but did not specify if the asparagus was grown in California.

Spears grown in Mexico had the lowest price tag. For double that price you can buy asparagus harvested in the Capay Valley, fifty miles from Sacramento. 

 

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