California asparagus season on track for March

California asparagus season on track for March

Labor concerns and pressure from imports aside, California asparagus growers expect a healthy crop, and say organic demand is growing even as overall acreage drops. 

James Paul, sales and marketing director with Stockton, Calif.-based Greg Paul Produce Sales Inc., represents his family’s Delta Queen brand grown in the Central Valley. The company typically ships from mid-March to May, from 500-1,000 acres.

“We do have nice young ground coming into full steam (this season) and should see very good yield per acre,” Paul said.

Dan Miller, head of grower relations and production manager for produce broker Jacobs, Malcolm & Burtt Inc., San Ramon, Calif., said the “good, old-fashioned winter” has set the stage for big, healthy plants.

Cold temperatures kill pests and provide good chilling conditions, he said, enabling asparagus ferns to mature. Frequent and generous rainfall in his region this season has sunk in deeply.

Miller expects JM&B’s four growers — including one organic supplier with a mature crop and a younger crop — to start harvesting in late February or early March. 

The 820 acres in Fresno in the Central Valley and in San Joaquin County should provide promotable volumes for consumers who prefer California asparagus to imports from Mexico and Peru.

JM&B is also talking with small chains and national retailers to promote California asparagus, he said.

For distributor Melissa’s/World Variety Produce Inc., Los Angeles, it’s too early to predict, due to the late winter, what harvest volumes and quality will be produced by its roughly 12 conventional and organic growers in the Central Valley and in Northern California, director of public relations Robert Schueller said. 

He expects the conventional crop to be available May to September, and the organic crop May to July.

Devine Organics, Fresno, Calif., which sells asparagus under the Double D Farms Organics brand, has been shifting its 72 acres in Coalinga to organic because of increasing demand, said sales manager Bridgette Garcia. She expects an April harvest.

The company is also planning to increase acreage — it hasn’t determined if that will be in California or on its land in Mexico — because it’s found ways to lower costs. That includes a new irrigation system that allows valves to be turned on and off remotely if there’s a leak.

Esparto, Calif.-based Durst Organic Growers Inc. expects a small bump up in volume this season because of newer plantings, said CEO Jim Durst. He typically sells about 100,000 cartons a year.

It’s too early to tell if soil temperatures will enable a typical early March harvest, but it is likely, he said. 

Last year’s warm winter prompted harvesting to begin in early February.  

There was less rain in the late fall than the normal 4-5 inches, Durst said, although January has been wetter. 

Growers are planting higher-yield varieties more consistent in size, said Cherie Watte, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission, El Centro. For them,