I’d like to make the case that asparagus, as a crop, is a prophetic vegetable. How the global asparagus industry has changed gives us a window on how the rest of the US fresh produce market is likely to change over time.
We Americans Love Asparagus, but…
As you can see in the graph above, Americans doubled our per capita consumption of asparagus between 1997 and 2008. That is a good thing because this delicious vegetable is high in nutrients like vitamin K, folate, vitamin C, vitamin A… and also contains healthy phytochemicals like glutathione and rutin. Asparagus is still a relatively small part of our vegetable consumption at 1.2 lbs/person compared to broccoli at 5.9 lbs, sweet corn at 9.2 lbs, or fresh tomatoes 18.5 lbs (USDA data). But what is interesting is that during the same time period that we doubled our consumption, the acres of asparagus grown in the US has dropped in half. Why the disconnect? There are several factors involved and many of them represent trends and drivers that will probably effect many other categories in the future.
Asparagus Is A Labor-Intensive Crop and We Americans Can’t Seem to Rationalize Our Farm Labor Policy
We seem to be unable to have a civilized conversation about immigration policy in the US let alone actually institute a sane guest worker system for the people who do so much to tend our fruit and vegetable crops. Because of this, labor is sometimes scarce, sometimes costly and fraught with potential legal issues for farmers. This is increasingly problematic for all labor-intensive crops, but particularly so for asparagus. During asparagus harvesting season in the spring, the shoots have to be carefully selected and cut as they emerge from the ground. No one has perfected a mechanical harvester that can do the job, so relatively skilled pickers are needed 7 days a week. Asparagus is a perennial crop which means that to start a new block, a grower needs to be confident that he/she will be able to find and pay for all that labor for many years (10-20) to justify the commitment of time and money to a new planting. Our political dysfunctionality is a big component of the uncertainty that is undermining farmer’s confidence and thus their decision about planting. Combine that with demographic trends, and look for a food future where only crops that can be harvested mechanically will prosper.
Politics Have Influenced Where Asparagus is Grown
The US government funded research and support to develop asparagus as a crop for South American farmers with the goal of giving them alternatives to growing drug crops. They also created an Andean Trade Preference. This was quite successful in the 1980s with relatively small growers selling to processing companies that exported canned and frozen product. The industry stagnated in the 1990s as those processed markets shifted to China. To survive, the asparagus industry started to shift to fresh exports and this tended to favor larger players as is always the case for fresh produce that is sold to distant customers with strong leverage. Consolidation is already a long-term trend in US fresh produce, and it will continue both here and at our import sources. Sourcing from China will be a continuing trend as it is now for many organic commodities that are not perishable.
The Peruvians Have Learned How to Cultivate Asparagus Year-round
The most successful asparagus cultivation has been in special micro-climates in the “rain shadow” of the Andes mountains, particularly in Peru. Here there is land for planting where there is NEVER any rain. There is irrigation water available. Some sources have been in elaborate irrigation systems for thousands of years. However, there are concerns about its sustainability because of climate change or excessing pumping from some aquifers In any case, it turns out that asparagus can be tricked into going dormant most times of the year by inducing drought stress. This allows the Peruvian growers to have different fields set up to be harvested at different times. There are not places in the US, Mexico or Canada that have the right combination of dryness and temperature to do this, so Peru supplies our market for most of the year when North American pickings are not available. Many people are advocates of “seasonal” produce consumption, and it is important, but the reality of consumer behavior is that we learn to eat things in greater quantities when we can count on them being available. This and retail marketing tendencies will continue to favor year-round offerings.
Growing Asparagus Local Sounds Like A Great Idea, But…
Asparagus is actually a vegetable that is better suited than most to local production. It can grow even in relatively cold places as long as it has a good summer to store energy in its underground “crowns” that then enable it to push up as new shoots for the several week harvest window. Many states used to be significant producers of asparagus including places like New Jersey, Michigan, Washington, Illinois and Indiana. One of the most advanced asparagus breeding efforts in the world was at Rutgers in New Jersey. Asparagus will be an important test of the strength of the “Local” and “Seasonal” food movements. There are many factors that will militate against these goals for asparagus, not matter how good it sounds (and it would be really great and fresh).
First of all, agricultural labor supply is even a bigger uncertainty in many of these regions. Also, who would make a 15-20 year commitment to a piece of land near a city that could have development potential? Asparagus would not be a good candidate for a U-Pick because you really need to know what you are doing when harvesting or you compromise the life-span of the crowns.
People like to blame “Big Ag” or “Industrial Farming” for the trends in our food supply. Asparagus is a good example of how what really happens is driven by forces such as economic realities, consumer behavior, retailer leverage, politics and weather. Farmers, at any scale, must simply respond to these drivers or go out of business.
Here is a challenge for a grocery retailer that wants to make a public commitment to local production. Give someone the financing and long-term contract that would allow them to devote some land to the production of local asparagus. Set the contract pricing in such a way that the labor will be available and affordable.
Graphs of trends from USDA-ERS and USDA-NASS made by Steve Savage
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Do you think that the rise in asparagus consumption between 1997 and 2008 can be somewhat attributed to the popularity of the food related programming on cable and satellite television? Now that we have networks devoted exclusively to food and celebrity chefs, aparagus might have become “trendy” with us common folk. You know how the public likes to buy into fads made popular by celebrities.
On an aside, I have only seen asparagus on the menus of three or four restaurants in my locale, and they are considered to be somewhat higher end establishments. Fresh still gets only a small space in the produce section of the supermarket, and canned versions have a small portion of the shelf space.
some increase may have come from publicity, but I think that the more frequent availability throughout the year is a bigger factor. I agree that it is a small and variable display, but certainly more common than in the 1970s and 1980s.
I think that marketing (whether intentional or unintentional) often drives demand, which in turn causes suppliers to seek new ways to increase product availability. There is no need to mass produce a better mousetrap if one cannot transfer the message about his innovation to the general public. Asparagus had been a favorite of cooking show chefs even before Julia Childs hit public television, but its popularity remained low. Availability may have been a factor in its limited consumption, but its failure to gain much market share prior to the 2000’s was more likely due to the limited viewership that cooking shows had in the past. PBS was the primary outlet for cooking shows in the early days and very few of those chefs had much notoriety; only one or two might have been considered stars. Since the mid-90’s, cable and satellite television and the internet, have catapulted a number of chefs into the limelight. They now endorse cookware, cutlery and kitchen gadgets; and the public readily swaps its cash for those items. Regardless of availability, asparagus continues to be a favorite side item for these chefs. When the public started viewing these chefs as celebrities, it is very likely that they not only bought into their product endorsements, but they also felt the need to cook and to eat more like the chefs they idolized. Asparagus may have ridden the wave of celebrity from the small screen to the logoed dinner plate. That demand may have driven producers to seek locations that could provide more consistent yields.
Marketing can certainly be an important force, but when it comes to food it is taste that really has to drive continuing consumption (although convenience is also huge as long as the taste is ok). Someone might try a new vegetable that a famous chef features a time or two, but if it does not provide pleasure, the celebrity thing wears thin.
The problem with US production has not been consistent yields – it has been profitability and long-term investment risk.