Drought jeopardizes Oceana County asparagus season 

May 31, 2023

Growers started mowing off the harvest Wednesday afternoon, May 31, due to quality issues caused by drought and heat.

Drought jeopardizes Oceana County asparagus season 

‘The cost of labor and lack of processing are contributing to make this situation much, much worse. It’s a really, really sad situation.’

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor

HART — Extreme heat and drought conditions are putting Oceana County’s 2023 asparagus season in serious peril.

8-inch spears with spreading tips caused by drought stress. 

“Growers started mowing off the harvest this afternoon due to quality issues caused by drought and heat,” said John Bakker, a consultant with the Michigan Asparagus Industry Research Farm, where he served as manager. “I have been involved in the industry closely 45 years, and I cannot recall anytime it is as dry as it is right now on May 31.”

“We got just under an inch of rain on the first of May, and since then no rain of any significance. Starting last week as the weather started to warm up, I saw quality start to slip. Now I would say it’s close to a crisis.”

“Right now, the big question is: will we still be harvesting for the asparagus festival? We’re that critical.” The 50th Annual National Asparagus Festival  is set for next weekend, June 9-11.  

“It’s not unusual to have a period like this, but it’s usually in mid-June when we start getting dry and hot.” The asparagus season typically runs from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day.

Oceana County is the top producer of asparagus in Michigan, and Michigan is the leading producer in the country. So, Oceana holds the title of the “The Asparagus Capital of the U.S.” 

“The fresh packers like to have asparagus that’s 9 ½ to about 11 ½ inches coming out of the field. Right now, a lot  of the asparagus coming out of the field that’s 11 inches look pretty bad. The heads are really separating.”

Another hurdle for farmers this season is a smaller processing market that could utilize shorter spears. 

“They pick much shorter asparagus for the processing market. They kind of reserve these (drought) periods for the processing market. Right now, the amount of asparagus processors want to buy is down considerably. The processing market is smaller than it has been in the last five years. The growers’ processing contracts are already filled. Now, their only option is the fresh market where they have to pick the longer asparagus where the quality is not.”

The other negative factor is a significant worker cost increase. Michigan’s asparagus crop is harvested by H-2A temporary agricultural workers. The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs.

“The government sets — and this has been a huge issue for us — AEWR, the Adverse Effect Wage Rate. So it’s the minimum wage that these H-2A workers can make. This year, AEWR was raised to $17.34 an hour. You tack on the additional costs of hiring a labor contractor, all the paperwork and transportation, etc., the actual cost to farmers to get asparagus harvested is well over $20 an hour.” Five years ago, AEWR was $12.50 per hour.

“Right now with the drought and the heat, we are very, very close to a break-even or perhaps negative (profit).

“You have a crop out there that you have been tending for years and years and years, and you get done at the end of the day and you figure out what the labor barrel was and figure out what you got to crop, and you realize that you’ve lost money.

“The cost of labor and lack of processing are contributing to make this situation much, much worse. It’s a really, really sad situation.”

The future of Oceana County’s asparagus industry looks bleak as profits have been steadily declining each year, said Bakker. “I know a number of growers who have been involved in asparagus their entire life and got out of it this year. I’ve been talking to more that are going to get out of it next year. We’re at a very crucial time to figure out if we can afford to stay in this business.

“We’ve come up with a mix of crops to bring workers here in late April or early May and keep many of them here and working through the summer. Michigan Freeze Pack right now is freezing asparagus in Hart. So let’s say the asparagus industry goes away, then all of sudden they have a hole in their schedule for May and June, So that jeopardizes other things. It tends to start this domino effect that affects more than just asparagus.

“I was hoping this year was the year that we were going to turn a corner. It appeared that the imports we struggle with every year from Peru and Mexico — which really kills the fresh market price — it looked like that was going to be down this year. They had some bad weather in Peru and worker shortages in Mexico. I was very optimistic a month ago that we were going to increase profitability, but with this weather situation, it’s discouraging sitting here on May 31st.”

An extreme drought during the summer of 1988 took its toll on local crops. However, that year’s drought didn’t begin until mid-June, so the asparagus season dodged a bullet.

If drought continues through the summer, other Oceana County crops will also suffer.

A photo taken earlier in the season of healthy Oceana County asparagus.

Due to the high cost of irrigation systems, few fields are watered. “We estimate that 5 percent of Oceana County’s crop is irrigated.” Traditionally, drought conditions haven’t been a big issue. 

“On average, Oceana County accounts for 80 percent of Michigan’s asparagus production,” said Jamie Clover Adams, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board. Approximately 40 percent of Michigan’s asparagus industry goes to processing.

Oceana County produced approximately 18-19 million pounds last year, said Bakker.

“We have put a lot more dollars this year into promotion in the fresh market,” said Clover Adams. “We have a specialty crop block grant where we’re doing our consumer awareness which we do traditionally as well as working with retailers on digital advertising because so many more people now are purchasing online for pick up.

“Inflation is an issue for a premium product, and being a premium product, people are pulling back on purchases. We are in larger stores in the Midwest promoting asparagus. While it is dry, we still had really beautiful asparagus earlier in the year and we still have good product in the cooler that is going to go to market. I am hopeful that sale will help our growers meet some of these challenges.

“With the light soils over there (in Oceana County), it makes it that much harder. Those soils don’t hold water,” Clover Adams. “For making the crop for next year, we need the drought to break. We need it for the fern and roots for next year.”  

As farmers struggle with the heat and drought among the other obstacles, they’re praying for rain. Unfortunately, the 10-day forecast shows no rain predicted. “A change in the weather could save the season,” said Bakker.

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