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Asparagus price bucks norm, spikes during coronavirus pandemic

By Jessie Higgins
Asparagus price bucks norm, spikes during coronavirus pandemic
Many farmers are receiving their highest price for asparagus in years because of coronavirus-induced market disruptions in top asparagus-producing countries. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

EVANSVILLE, Ind., May 7 (UPI) -- While most agricultural prices have plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, the price of asparagus has bucked the trend and shot up.

That's because the majority of the asparagus sold in the United States is grown in Mexico and Peru, and the pandemic has seriously disrupted both those markets.

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That leaves American farmers as the country's main providers of asparagus.

"Prices for fresh asparagus have never been this high for this long," said Alan Schreiber, executive director for the Washington Asparagus Commission, who is an asparagus grower.

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Farmers who had not negotiated a price for their crop before the coronavirus struck are receiving more than $60 per 28 pound crate. The open market price last year was closer to $40, Schreiber said.

Higher prices to farmers will not necessarily translate into higher prices for consumers, he noted. About half of the asparagus sold this year already was under contract at prices that are roughly the same as last year's before the virus arrived, he said.

On Wednesday, Target had 1 pound of asparagus advertised for $6.38, while Safeway was selling it for $3.99 a pound. That's high compared to the average national price of $3.08 per pound, as calculated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2016, the most recent year available.

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Grocery stores like Whole Foods and Schnucks, however, have asparagus advertised at $2.99 per pound.

"Generally speaking, there is a shortage of asparagus on the market right now," said John Bakker, the executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board. "It remains to be seen how long that will last."

That shortage will likely end once Mexico and Peru again are able to supply the United States with asparagus.

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Both countries have their own unique coronavirus-induced market disruptions. In Peru, which harvests asparagus year-round, exporters are unable to find planes to ship the vegetable.

"Asparagus from Peru normally comes here in the bellies of passenger planes," Schreiber said. "Those aren't coming, in anymore, and so neither is asparagus."

Meanwhile, Mexico still is able to truck produce across the border, but Mexican farmers are having trouble obtaining labor to cut and package their crops.

"Believe it or not, Mexico needs workers from Central America to come up and cut their asparagus," Schreiber said. "They're not coming in because of the virus, so the flow from Mexico into the United States is down."

For now, only some American growers -- mainly in the Washington state area -- are able to take advantage of the price spike.

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Washington is in the middle of its asparagus harvest, which usually begins in April and runs through June. Farmers in Michigan, another leading asparagus growing state, normally begin their harvest in early May. But cold weather this year has delayed that.

"We would love to have truckloads of asparagus to sell right now," the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Council's Bakker said.

Also, nearly all the growers in California -- which used to lead the nation in asparagus acres -- have already gone out of business.

Cheap asparagus from Mexico has flooded the American market since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and California growers couldn't compete. Enough growers have exited the industry that the California Asparagus Commission suspended its activities at the end of last year.

The jump in asparagus price is an outlier in the coronavirus pandemic. Most fresh produces, as well as dairy and livestock, have experienced plummeting prices due to the loss of food service outlets.

"It's hard to enjoy this when literally as I talk to you I'm driving by the house of a potato grower who had to disk under 240 acres of emerged potato plants," the Washington Asparagus Commission's Schreiber said.

"I can see this grower's house right now and I wonder if he can financially survive this. It is very sobering."

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