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Seneca announcement leaves state's asparagus industry on life support

This is asparagus season in the Yakima and Walla Walla river valleys. The region's rich soil and perfect growing conditions have produced another bumper crop of high-quality asparagus destined for America's dinner tables.

Despite that, Washington's $100 million a year asparagus industry is in jeopardy. It may even be on its death bed.

On June 3, Seneca Foods Corporation announced that, after 70 years in operation, it will close its Dayton, asparagus packing plant next year. The news followed a decision by General Mills, Seneca's largest customer, to begin importing its asparagus from Peru.

Seneca Foods is the third and final asparagus canner to shut its doors in Washington in less than a year, following Del Monte in Toppenish and Chiquita in Walla Walla.

In fact since 1990, Washington's asparagus farm lands have shrunk from 30,000 acres to 15,000. Another 1,700 acres are being plowed under since Del Monte Foods moved its asparagus processing line to Peru, along with 350 jobs.

But the Seneca announcement is different. The company's plant in Dayton is the world's largest asparagus processing facility, employing more than 1,000 seasonal workers, 50 full-time employees, and providing growers with more than $15 million in annual revenues.

In other words, Seneca is to Dayton what Boeing is to Seattle.

This crisis has nothing to do with growing conditions, urban sprawl or plant diseases; it has to do with several well-intentioned federal and state policies that are combining to kill an entire industry.

One of those policies is the Andean Trade Preference Act. Part of America's war on drugs, the Act was supposed to get Andean farmers to switch from growing coca leaves - the base for cocaine - to other crops, such as asparagus. As an incentive, the U.S. agreed to a zero tariff on Peruvian asparagus imports.

Unfortunately, the agreement was doomed to fail because asparagus and coca are grown in two very different regions. Instead of switching from coca to asparagus, Peruvians are now growing both crops. And since the Andean agreement allows Peruvian asparagus to enter the United States without tariffs, it undercuts our crops at supermarkets.

According to the General Accounting Office, this 1991 act has not stemmed coca production, but has put asparagus growers in Washington, California and Michigan at risk.

Along with federal trade policy, Washington's minimum wage law is also helping to kill this labor intensive industry. Our state's growers and processors must pay $7.16 per hour - the highest starting wage in the nation, which automatically escalates each year. In Peru, workers get $5 per day.

Congress and the Washington State Legislature must step in if our state's asparagus industry is to be saved.

First, the Department of Commerce should impose a tariff on Peruvian asparagus. It could do so tomorrow if it wanted to. It has done just that for powerful sugar and wheat interests, but has turned a deaf ear to the pleas of asparagus growers. Our Congressional delegation should put pressure on the Commerce Department to ensure fair treatment for American asparagus growers.

Secondly, lawmakers in Olympia must change our state's minimum wage law. Because our minimum wage automatically increases each year, it continually widens the gap between Washington and the rest of the world. Legislators should freeze the wage at $7.16 until the rest of the country catches up, and tie future increases to economic conditions in agriculture and other industries where labor costs are especially sensitive.

Asparagus growers are not asking for special treatment, just fair treatment. But an entire industry in Washington is in danger of collapse unless elected officials in Olympia and Washington, D.C. act quickly.

Don C. Brunell is President of the Association of Washington Business.

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