Asparagus growers in the Pacific Northwest are wrapping up their 2005 harvest knowing one thing: 2006 looks bleak.
The once thriving industry faces an uncertain future after the recent closure of the last remaining canning plant in Washington state. The closure effectively ends the state's processed asparagus industry, leaving growers scrambling to find a new market for their crops.
And, ripple effects probably will hit the nation's entire fresh asparagus industry in 2006, said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission.
The 2005 harvest has been estimated at nearly 50 million pounds. As much as half of that was canned at the Seneca Foods Corp. plant in Dayton, about 120 miles east of here.
Last year, the company announced plans to shut down permanently. The news followed the closure of a Del Monte Foods Co. plant in 2003.
Growers who had contracted to sell asparagus to Seneca probably will be forced to risk depressing prices by adding their crop to the fresh market -- or switch crops.
"The fresh market simply cannot absorb that kind of increase next year," said Kevin Bouchey, a Washington grower. "It's a disaster waiting to happen."
Washington is the nation's top producer of asparagus behind California, harvesting about 40 percent of the crop. The state had 32,000 acres producing asparagus in 1991, the same year a federal law exempted from tariffs certain agricultural imports, including asparagus.
That law, the Andean Trade Preference Act, was intended to help such countries as Peru combat drug trafficking by giving farmers alternative crops to poppies. The law was a boon to Peru's asparagus industry, but it devastated Washington growers.
Industry groups in the United States have been working for years to either overturn the act or exempt asparagus. Efforts also are under way to mechanize the industry to reduce labor costs.
Just 12,500 acres of asparagus remained in Washington state at the beginning of 2005. That number could fall to 10,000 acres by next harvest, a "many, many decade low point" for the industry, Schreiber said.
Washington's asparagus industry was listed among the top 20 farm products for the state in 2003, valued at $43 million. Whether that will continue into the future remains to be seen.
Growers say they need 30 cents a pound just to cut the crop and deliver it to a warehouse. That does not include any overhead costs, such as fertilizer, rent, water or labor.