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Asparagus growers feeling crunch

Neighboring market forces south of the border and in northern growing areas such as Washington are putting a squeeze on California’s asparagus growers.

In 1998, California ranked first and accounted for more than 40 percent of the total U.S. asparagus production. According to the California Asparagus Commission, 2007 statewide asparagus production has fallen to 22,500 acres.

“The real problem is a lack of good prices to pay for our production costs, and that’s driving the crop to a minor status in the state,” says Benny Fouche, San Joaquin County UCCE farm advisor.

The reasons for the statewide decline in asparagus acreage over the last few years are multifaceted, according to Cherie Watte, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission.

“It is mainly due to increased costs of production and labor, as well as import pressures from Mexico and Peru. Our major export markets are Canada, Switzerland, and Japan. We've run marketing programs in all three countries at various times, but ceased promotions in Japan a few years ago. We now only operate marketing programs in Canada and Switzerland.”

Weak prices and weak demand for the crop are also having an effect on dealing with pest and disease pressures, according to Fouche. Fusarium, which tends to be a factor in asparagus production, is best managed by rotating to new ground, and even that is impractical now, he says.

“The real solution for fusarium is to find new ground that has not had asparagus grown on it before, and that's not easy. The biggest problem again is price, so very few growers are planting into new fields.”

As with other minor crops, the registration of effective pest control materials is an ongoing issue due to economics. “Garden centipedes continue to be a problem, with no materials registered that are effective,” Fouche says. “I attempted to control them with pyrethroids through drip irrigation, but that didn’t work.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. “Aphids continue to be a problem in the late summer and fall,” Fouche says. “But, new chemistry is on the horizon, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem should the old materials lose support.”

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