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Late asparagus season has growers concerned about availability of labor force

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The asparagus season recently began. Local growers say the season was delayed due to below freezing temperatures.

This year's asparagus crop was delayed by below freezing temperatures.

According to Airport Ranches owner Mike Miller, vice chairman of the Washington Asparagus Commission, the late start has raised some concern. But, a probable labor shortage in late June has him more worried.

"We could possibly make up for the season's losses in the end, if we can cut later into June," he stated.

Miller, who is accustomed to beginning his season in early April, said his asparagus crops had their "first real cut" early last week.

"But, April can be mean with untimely frost," he noted.

Miller and Outlook grower Jim Kassebaum agreed that it is not difficult to recover when asparagus freezes. Miller said the cutters simply remove black asparagus and the vegetable will sprout green again.

He stated that soil conditions typically warm to 58 degrees before daily cuts begin, and the season typically lasts into the middle of June. He is hoping to extend the season to late June to account for the late start.

Both Miller and Kassebaum stated that the heads of the asparagus open up when temperatures become too warm. "They mature, allowing seed heads," said Miller.

Kassebaum said this year's season began later than he can remember. He has been growing asparagus since 1973 and currently has 18 acres.

"I am sure the early income loss is all that has been experienced," he stated.

Kassebaum said he didn't lose a lot of his crop to the weather. He attributes the lack of frozen asparagus plants to the fact that a majority of his crop had not yet emerged when the Lower Yakima Valley experienced near 20 degree temperatures.

He, too, said he is hoping to extend the season. "I have hopes that with other markets behind schedule, I will be able to retain labor for as long as I need them," said Kassebaum.

Miller said the challenge of keeping laborers stems from the fact that he provides part-time work. Whereas, apple and cherry growers are able to offer full-time work.

"If primary employers allow a later start in the day, my labor might stay. If the primary employer won't allow it, the workers will be forced to quit," he commented.

Miller also stated that the current market prices for asparagus are good. He said he is a little concerned that Peru may want to jump into the market with such favorable prices.

"They typically stay out of our market during our season," he explained, stating Peruvian growers are able to grow crops year round.

"But, really, I see the biggest impact locally will be the availability of labor in the end," Miller stated.

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