Imports, labor issues trouble California asparagus growers

Imports, labor issues trouble California asparagus growers

The weather is no longer the biggest challenge facing asparagus growers in California as they prepare for this year’s anticipated March-to-summer harvest season.

A law taking effect this month allowing farmworkers to receive overtime pay under certain conditions, an increase in the hourly minimum wage requirement and greater asparagus production anticipated from Mexico outrank weather as causing the greatest concern to growers.

“The No. 1 problem is the cost of labor,” said James Paul, sales and marketing director with Stockton, Calif.-based Greg Paul Produce Sales Inc.

Under a 2016 law, larger employers must now pay overtime to hourly workers after 9.5 hours, a threshold which will fall in subsequent years and eventually include smaller companies. Historically, overtime was paid after 10 hours.

Also this year, the hourly minimum wage rose to $12 for larger businesses; $11 for smaller ones. 

Finally, Mexican asparagus growers expanded production this year, growers and industry experts say, and are timing their crops to potentially compete with California growers in a price war growers say they can’t hope to win.

Last year, Paul said Mexican asparagus was selling for 57-71 cents per pound when Mexico’s deal overlapped with California’s — low prices that the state’s growers have to compete with during their short season.

“The industry here is on the brink of disappearing altogether,” he said.

Compared to such mounting issues, the weather and rising demand for organic asparagus are bright spots.

Dan Miller, head of grower relations and production manager for produce broker Jacobs, Malcolm & Burtt Inc., San Ramon, Calif., promotes California asparagus as an option for consumers looking for locally grown produce.

“We are trying to support what’s left of the grower base here in California, because once it’s gone, it probably won’t come back,” Miller said.

California asparagus acreage fell 60% from 2007-17 to 8,300 acres, according to California’s Department of Food and Agriculture. Production fell 41% from 2016-17.