Asparagus production in the Golden State has plummeted and farmers are turning to unique varieties and new marketing avenues to continue producing the crop.

California asparagus production peaked in 1999, accounting for some 36,000 planted acres. Acreage dropped to 22,500 acres in 2006 and declined to 2,800 acres in 2021, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The San Joaquin River Delta was once home to thousands of acres of asparagus. Now, the area has only one or two asparagus growers with about 100 to 200 acres in production, according to Brenna Aegerter, a University of California Cooperative farm adviser in San Joaquin County.

Labor costs are a major expense for the average California farm accounting for 26.3% of total farm expenditures, according to a 2021 survey on California ag production expenses from USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. On average, California producers spent the most on labor at $160,870 per farm, and the cost has driven many producers away from asparagus.

Those still in the asparagus business have largely transitioned to direct marketing to customers or restaurants. Others have selected new varieties in an attempt to add value to the crop, including Jim Durst of Durst Organic Growers in Esparto, California, who is now growing a purple variety that is attractive to the food service industry.

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Purple asparagus varieties are “not quite as productive as green, but it costs the same amount to grow and the price is 30% higher,” Durst said.

The California Asparagus Commission ended its marketing activities in 2019. U.S. asparagus growers “cannot compete with Mexico,” said Aegerter.

Mexico is the largest provider of asparagus to the U.S., accounting for 361.3 million pounds in 2022. Mexico’s asparagus production reached 725.3 million pounds in 2021, according to data from Mexico's Agricultural and Fisheries Information Service.

Peru is the second largest provider of the commodity, importing 216.2 million pounds to the U.S. in 2021.

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