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Peruvian trade agreement hurts local asparagus growers

Hastings 'disappointed' with agreement

The U.S. Trade Representative announced last week that work has been completed on a free-trade agreement with Peru.

The agreement brings to a close 18 months of negotiations, and could possibly lead to years of frustration for local asparagus growers.

Modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement, the new free-trade agreement with Peru will, over time, eliminate trade barriers such as tarriffs.

Congressman Doc Hastings said he wasn't pleased with the agreement because specifics were not addressed in the agreement, including asparagus.

"I'm very disappointed that the issue of asparagus was not addressed," Hastings said.

The agreement won't limit the importation of asparagus, which has upset local growers, many of whom have complained that they gave their industry up due to the "war on drugs" in 1991.

Fourteen years ago, the Andean Trade Preferences Act allowed for the importation of cash crops from the Andean Region of South American, which includes Peru, Columbia, Ecuador and Bolivia.

The act was meant to discourage the growing of coca, which is used to make cocaine, and encourage the growing of a legal cash crop to replace lost income from coca production.

"They've got every right to be angry and disappointed by this deal," Hastings said of asparagus growers.

Hastings said he had spoken with U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman about the trade agreement to voice his frustration with the terms, and its impact on growers.

Lynn Elder, who along with his brother Larry own Elder Farms in Toppenish, said since 1991, he's seen a steady decrease in his output of asparagus.

Closures of asparagus processing plants in Walla Walla, Dayton and Toppenish have pushed what used to be about 75 percent of the market - processed asparagus - into a market that's now made up of 100 percent fresh asparagus.

Elder attributes that to Peruvian asparagus processing.

"They've got the market, that's all there is to it," he said.

In Peru, the climate allows for year-round growing and processing, he said.

All growers there need to do is stagger harvesting their fields in order to sustain year-round output.

Originally, Elder said he had 100 acres of asparagus, but that has since dropped to 36 acres, and with the Del Monte processing plant closure in Toppenish, with whom Elder used to work, he may cease operations all together after the next growing season.

Elder isn't the only grower who has seen his acerage declining. Kevin Bouchey of SKD Farms in Toppenish said he's seen his acreage decline from 320 to 250 acres in the past three years.

He attributes that decline to the fact that farmers no longer want to invest time and money into replanting the crop, which is only viable for 10 to 12 years before it needs replanting.

Labor costs and plant closures have really hurt growers here in the Yakima Valley, Bouchey said.

"It's really compounded here in recent years," he said of growers' problems.

On top of that, Bouchey said growers in the Peruvian market have made no secret about their desire to capture all of the American asparagus market.

Though Bouchey said right now the asparagus market in the Yakima Valley is still viable, it may not continue to be that way for much longer.

"In the long term, this is really going to jeopardize our industry," he said.

Last week's agreement drops a 12 percent tariff on U.S. goods shipped to Peru, according to a statement from Portman. That reduction will benefit exporters in this country, he said.

Portman, in his statement, also said the arrangement will benefit consumers in this country. He said the agreement "will help American consumers save money while offering them greater choices."

Hastings said he would not rule out proposing legislation to try to maintain fair prices for growers in the Yakima Valley and in other asparagus-heavy states, including Michigan and California.

Asparagus production has been in decline for several years in Washington. Overall acreage of asparagus production has fallen from 30,000 acres to just 12,000 acres since the original agreement went into effect 14 years ago, Bouchey said.

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