Ag Today April 3, 2017

The end of Delta asparagus?

By Alex Breitler
Record Staff Writer

In the old days, standing on the floor of the Kings Crown packing shed in the southern Delta, you couldn’t have a basic conversation.

The trucks delivering freshly cut asparagus, the conveyors sending the spears along for washing, sorting and packaging, and the hustle of 200 employees would have drowned out your words.

Today, everything third-generation farmer Joe Ratto says on the floor of the mostly empty building sounds perfectly clear.

“Today, we’re down to 32 employees,” he said Friday. “Thirty-two. It makes me sick.”

The dry-erase board hanging on the wall behind him tells the story, too: “No hay trabajo mañana” (No work tomorrow).
The fact that San Joaquin County’s most famous crop no longer is a significant share of the local economy is nothing new. From 1997 through 2015, the amount of acreage planted in asparagus declined 88 percent from just over 24,000 acres to less than 3,000.

But the few remaining asparagus growers say things have gotten even worse. Long-term trade agreements that favor asparagus grown in foreign lands, combined with more recent tightening regulations at home, have the farmers convinced that Delta asparagus soon may go virtually extinct.

“There’s no way we can continue with these prices that we have today,” Ratto said. “In the next week or so we might have to close the doors if this thing doesn’t turn around.”

What would Stockton be without locally grown asparagus? The annual Asparagus Festival gave the city a chance to market itself in a positive light, at one time earning “Best of the West” accolades from Sunset Magazine. The prominent water tank along southbound Interstate 5 coming into Stockton still is emblazoned with an image of asparagus. An alternate logo designed several years ago for the Stockton Ports depicts an angry looking sailor wielding a spear of asparagus.

“It’s a sad tale,” said Ed Zuckerman, whose longtime family farming operation on McDonald Island quit growing asparagus several years ago.

In his grandfather’s time, Zuckerman said, the family had 6,000 acres of asparagus on just one farm, with 13 packing sheds, an ice house and a facility on Middle River from which the asparagus was shipped all over the country.

Asparagus made sense in the Delta. It grew well in the peat soil, and because the harvest began as soon as February each year, it provided farmers with some early-season money and farmworkers with some early-season jobs.

“I feel a loss — I really do,” Zuckerman said. “But people speak with their pocketbooks. When they see (imported) asparagus for sale for $1.99 at the supermarket, that’s a couple of dollars a pound below what it costs us to grow it. There hasn’t been a profit to be made in asparagus for a long time. The guys still doing it, God bless them, I don’t know how they do it.”

The decline began with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which eventually phased out a 25 percent tariff on asparagus imported from Mexico. That made foreign asparagus cheaper for U.S. supermarket chains and other buyers.

Meanwhile, costs for California farmers climbed higher due to minimum-wage laws and stricter food-handling requirements, Ratto and other farmers say. The state Legislature’s expansion of farmworker overtime will add another set of new costs in 2019, they say.

More so than other crops, asparagus farmers are vulnerable to these costs because it’s a labor intensive crop that must be cut by hand.

The end result is that although Americans nearly doubled their consumption of asparagus between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s, California growers felt a tighter and tighter squeeze during that time, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At the moment, the difference in price between local and imported asparagus is so severe that Ratto and another local grower, Bob Ferguson, say they cannot continue this year’s harvest in its entirety. Ferguson said his workers are cutting asparagus on only 25 of his 160 acres; the rest of the rapidly growing plant will be knocked down until prices improve.

“It’s a perfectly good product,” Ferguson said.

He believes that asparagus is the first of many other crops for which farmers will struggle to compete against out-of-country growers.

“We’re the tip of the spear,” he said.

Delta asparagus may never disappear entirely. Ratto said he hopes to still provide the crop on a much smaller scale for farmers’ markets and small mom-and-pop businesses that are willing to pay the higher price.

Local growers also hope to experiment with an asparagus-cutting machine that could help reduce labor costs in the future, though they say there are many questions about how the machine will work.

President Donald Trump has promised to rework the trade agreement, with the Los Angeles Times reporting last week that a draft of Trump’s plan would expand the U.S. government’s ability to apply tariffs if imports are harming U.S. industries.

But it’s far from certain how that will play out. And it’s far from certain that Ratto’s 7-year-old grandson, the fifth generation on his farm, will ever harvest asparagus.

Ratto grows a number of other crops later in the season. But this hurts.

“Asparagus was ideal for us,” he said. “It’s a pretty sad situation right now.”