The continuing decline of U.S. asparagus

In a story by veteran produce journalist Tom Burfield, The Packer reports this week that two more companies have pulled out of the California asparagus deal.

From the story:

A.M. Farms, Stockton, Calif., no longer grows asparagus, said owner Marc Marchini.

"It was a good run while we were at it," he said.

The company had been growing asparagus in Stockton since the 1930s.

"I fully expect big box stores and people like that are going to try to get (asparagus) from the cheapest place they can," he said.

"That's going to be Mexico or Peru."

Burfield also reports Monterey, Calif.-based Dole Fresh Vegetables no longer will market California asparagus, and instead will source its supply from Mexico and Peru.

The precipitous decline of U.S.-grown fresh asparagus is easily seen through U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

The USDA reports that the share of U.S. asparagus consumption provided by imports has grown from a modest 10.8% in 1980 to 91.2% in 2015.

That trend is much more pronounced than the general rising trend of vegetable imports. The USDA said the percent of U.S. fresh market vegetable consumption that is imported increased from 10.3% in 1980 to 28.7% in 2015.

U.S. per capita consumption of asparagus has increased from 0.8 pounds per capita in 1980 to 1.5 pounds in 2015, so higher import volumes have largely contributed to that rise.

In 2015, USDA market news service reported fresh market shipments of California asparagus were 16.8 million pounds, with Michigan shipments at 10.1 million pounds and Washington state shipments at 12.2 million pounds. Combined, U.S. shipments of fresh market asparagus in 2015 totaled 39.1 million pounds.

That sounds weighty enough, until you consider that combined import shipments from Argentina, Canada, Ecuador, Mexico, New Zealand and Peru tallied 422.6 million pounds. Mexico and Peru accounted for the bulk of imports, with Mexico accounting for 51% of imports and Peru at 47% of total fresh asparagus imports.

In a 2010 report titled "The U.S. Produce Industry and Labor: Facing the Future in a Global Economy," the USDA reported on the declining prospects of U.S. asparagus.

The report noted that before the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, the U.S. applied a most-favored nation tariff of 25% on imported fresh asparagus during the Feb. 10-June 30 period, when most of U.S. asparagus is harvested. Under NAFTA, the USDA said that seasonal tariff - notably on Mexican asparagus - was phased out over a 14-year period that ended in 2008. Peruvian asparagus has entered the U.S. tariff-free since 1991 under the Andean Trade Preference Act.

A deeper dive into U.S. import statistics for asparagus

reveals that Mexican imports rose from $28 million in 1994 to $350 million in 2016. Imports from Peru jumped from $12.7 million to $272.6 million. That's incredible.

Even in 2010, the USDA ERS said that the lack of mechanized harvesting technology, rising labor costs, labor competition from other high value crops like cherries and a smaller harvest window because of Mexican imports were causing more California growers to abandon asparagus.

If "America First" and NAFTA renegotiation have anything to do with the fresh produce industry - many would argue they shouldn't

- President Trump may have a poster child in the U.S. fresh asparagus industry.

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