The Land: COVID-19 could be detrimental to asparagus season.

April 9, 2020

The Land: COVID-19 could be detrimental to asparagus season.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

#TheLand is a series telling the stories about local agriculture. It is a presentation of Peterson Farms, Inc.

With a market value at an all-time low and a serious worker shortage due to COVID-19, the 2020 asparagus season in Oceana County looks bleak.

Asparagus season is a major event in Oceana County, which produces about 75 percent of Michigan’s asparagus. Michigan is the second largest asparagus producer in the country.

An emotional blow to the local industry came last weekend when organizers of the National Asparagus Festival held annually in Hart in mid-June was cancelled this year due to COVID-19. It would have been the 47th annual event.

Self-serve roadside stands will continue to operate during the pandemic, Bakker said.

Executive Director of the Michigan Asparagus Council John Bakker has been monitoring the situation closely. Trends caused by the pandemic of fresh asparagus sales dropping, restaurants closing and shoppers going to the store less frequently are having a negative impact on the industry.

“The fresh market is the lowest I have ever seen,” Bakker said. “At current prices, we couldn’t even cover the cost of getting the asparagus out of the field. Farmers would get a bill instead of a check.”

Going into Easter weekend, the market value for asparagus is normally at its highest, Bakker said. A 28-pound box of asparagus normally sells for $50-60, he said, and right now that price is in the mid-teens. Bakker said he has seen prices as low as $8 for a 28-pound box last week.

Because they have been ordered to stay home to help prevent the spread of the disease, consumers are buying less perishable foods and going grocery shopping less often.

Frozen asparagus sales are up, however, Bakker said, as consumers are choosing to buy food with longer shelf lives.

The state is requesting that the US Department of Agriculture purchase processed asparagus for military and feeding programs. “If that doesn’t come through, it would be bad for us,” Bakker said. The amount purchased has been decreasing in recent years with 10 million pounds in 2018 to 7 million last year.

“Processors are not booking a lot business right now,” he said. That is mainly due to competition with the global market, particularly Peru.

Workers pick asparagus in a field outside of Hart.

There are a few weeks left before the asparagus season begins in Oceana County, which is normally early May. “There is still time for it to improve,” he said.

As the coronavirus takes its toll on asparagus’ market value, it also has a negative impact on labor availability.

US consulates in Mexico are closed indefinitely, stranding a labor source upon which American farms rely.

In a normal year, more than 200,000 foreigners will get temporary permits, known as H-2A visas, to work in US agriculture. But after fears of the coronavirus pandemic soared, the United States government closed consulates in March — leaving American farmers scrambling and Mexican workers stranded during one of the busiest times of the season.

This move impacts only new H-2A workers, Bakker said. “They can’t bring any brand-new workers on, but they can bring in old ones.” This only applies to workers who have not yet done a face-to-face interview. The ban is waived for H-2A workers who have been on the force for 12-18 months or more, Bakker said.

“Approximately 80 percent should be here,” he added.

Bringing an H-2A worker to Michigan is about a $1,500 investment for a farmer due to transportation costs.

Another issue is that workers from Guatemala are banned due to travel restrictions, which causes a less than 10 percent drop in Michigan’s asparagus harvesting workforce.

Bakker said he fears the processing facilities will have a worse worker shortage than the farms this year due to the COVID-19 crisis. “I’m worried about staffing at those facilities.”

As is well known the situation is fluid, so these concerns could deepen or lighten up with each passing day. “Today, I am more concerned about the market value than the worker shortage,” he said Wednesday, April 8.

Farmers’ markets are considered “essential” businesses, so they will be open for business this spring if Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order to keep non-essential businesses closed during the health crisis continues on throughout the asparagus season. So, roadside stands selling asparagus should be open for business.

This year’s season appears that it will start a little early, Bakker said, which is also a concern due to frost ruining early crops. “My gut tells me we’re running a week ahead.”

For information on this series sponsors, Peterson Farms, including careers, visit www.petersonfarmsinc.com.

This story is copyrighted © 2020, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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