Oceana County’s asparagus season starts out strong.

May 17, 2022

Workers pick asparagus in a field outside of Hart.

Oceana County’s asparagus season starts out strong.

Excellent quality, good growing conditions signal successful crop.

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By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

HART — Oceana County is the top producer of asparagus in Michigan, and Michigan is the leading producer in the country.

Unlike last season, Mother Nature is cooperating with this year’s asparagus crops. “So far, the weather has been favorable,” said John Bakker, manager of the Michigan Asparagus Industry Research Farm.

“We came out of the winter season kind of in a below normal moisture deficit, because we didn’t have a lot of snow. But then we got a lot of nice spring rains and it was cool, and it held the crop back. But now we’re up and rolling. We’ve had zero frost injury, which is a huge plus.

“We started out with a hot spell and now it’s turning cooler, which gives the plants a little time to rest. Right now, I’m looking for a really, really good season.”

“Quality is excellent,” said Jamie Clover Adams, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Council.

Last year, growers battled frost during a cold spring. Most farmers lost about 5-10 percent of their crops, said Bakker.

The asparagus season got underway last week, and the season is expected to run about 6-7 weeks. “Most growers started harvesting either Wednesday (May 11) or Thursday (May 12) of last week. We started a little late this year, and if we don’t get too hot and dry in June, I would see us going well into that third week of June, maybe even into the fourth week.”

“They started carts running across the county last week,” said Adams. “The hot weather made the asparagus come pretty quickly.” This week’s cooler weather slows the growing process down, so growers are getting somewhat of a break.

“Everything is lining up for a good season,” said Bakker. “The one wild card is always Mother Nature.”

If the weather isn’t an obstacle, competition from other countries is.

“We’re always mindful about imports that come in during our season,” said Bakker. “That’s probably our biggest concern right now is if Mexico or Peru cranked up volumes coming into the US. But obviously the cost of fuel affects the cost of freight. Michigan is located within 500 miles of I believe half the residents of the United States, so that gives us a nice freight advantage. Things are looking good there.

“The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) is buying $5 million worth of asparagus this year — processed asparagus.” The frozen and canned asparagus goes to institutional feeding programs, such as food banks and jails.

“We are fortunate here in Michigan to have our processors, because growers in other parts of the country don’t have that,” said Adams. “They don’t have an option if the fresh market is not panning as well as they would like. We have another place to go with ours, and they don’t.” Approximately 40 percent of Michigan’s asparagus industry goes to processing.

“On average, Oceana County accounts for 80 percent of Michigan’s asparagus production,” said Adams. Oceana County produces approximately 15 million pounds annually, said Bakker.

Michigan holds the top ranking for asparagus production with Washington a close second. “Michigan and Washington state are pretty close to each other,” said Bakker.

The popularity of asparagus, particularly in the restaurant industry, continues to grow. “Asparagus is considered a premiere vegetable that plates nicely next to a steak, chops or fish entree.” 

One industry challenge is dealing with the growth of online grocery shopping, triggered largely by COVID-19. Because asparagus is often an “impulse buy,” online consumers may not have it on their virtual shopping list. “If you don’t go into the supermarket, you don’t see that beautiful asparagus,” said Bakker.

A two-year specialty crop block grant targeted at online marketing is one of several tactics the industry is using to help alleviate that challenge, said Adams. “Social media influencers put together recipes and promote asparagus to their followers.” 

Check out michiganasparagus.org/recipes for some tasty asparagus recipes.

The asparagus season comes and goes quickly during the busy spring season. “Eat early and eat often,” Adams advised.

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