Once called “the king of vegetables,” asparagus has become harder to find in the Delta’s fields. Thousands of acres of asparagus used to cover the Stockton-Brentwood area with soft green spears every spring, but urban sprawl and other crops have stealthily replaced them.
In the last 20 years, California’s asparagus acreage has plummeted. At the turn of the 21st century, California growers were farming more than 36,000 acres of asparagus. In 1995, Contra Costa County harvested 20,000 acres of asparagus. In 2017, that figure dropped to a mere 1,300 acres.
Another way to look at it is that California growers harvested 58 million pounds of asparagus in 2007 on 20,000 acres. That fell to just more than 20 million pounds of production from 8,000 acres in 2016, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Acreage is even less now.
Edged out by imports
It is said that the crop has declined so drastically because imports have made it almost impossible for local farmers to financially compete. Even the California Asparagus Commission has suspended its operations.
This decrease in acreage began with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that took effect in 1994.
Until that time, growers were able to get a premium for their high-quality California asparagus. With NAFTA in place, the difference between California’s labor costs and its strict safety regulations and those of Mexico’s has had a major impact on the asparagus market. NAFTA was replaced in 2019 by the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which has continued to exacerbate the problem.
“Asparagus is a labor-intensive crop, and it’s hard to be competitive,” says Barbara Cecchini of what was once Cecchini & Cecchini Farms in Brentwood. “Perfectly good Delta asparagus is getting chopped up and tilled under.”
The Cecchini family has grown asparagus since the 1930s but sold the land and moved their operation to Urban Edge Farm.
Another local asparagus grower, Roscoe Zuckerman of Zuckerman Farms in Stockton, relies heavily on direct-to-consumer farmers market to sell his product. Local farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes and restaurants make up more than half his business.
“It’s the only way we have of breaking even,” Zuckerman says. “They give us the opportunity to communicate the freshness of a local-grown product that is harvested the day before market, compared to asparagus that has traveled thousands of miles and is a week old before it hits market shelves.”
Once asparagus is cut, the sugars begin to break down and the flavor becomes starchy. That’s why it’s important to get freshly cut asparagus from a local farmer.
Asparagus requires, on average, nearly 260 gallons of water per pound. With an almost constant drought in California, Delta asparagus has become even more costly to grow because there is very little to no ground water reserves. Under the state’s new Groundwater Management Act, agriculture is required to adhere to a strict “sustainability plan” for pumping in dry years.
Growers of California asparagus have had to become more conscious of their production and growing methods to be even remotely competitive. Growing and harvesting asparagus has had to become more efficient, even though it still has to be hand-harvested, hand-sorted and hand-packed. Farmers cut back in the fall and winter to avoid the growth of asparagus fern production as it goes into dormancy. Farmers also used to flood the fields in spring, which is not common anymore.
Staging a comeback
One strong element that has California asparagus ahead of any other country is the state’s standards of production and food safety regulations, which are among the most stringent. You may pay more for California asparagus, but the superb quality, flavor and safety of the state’s asparagus is a strong selling point.
Woody Guthrie once sang about “Pastures of Plenty,” and we hope asparagus will spring back with increased awareness of its value to California agriculture and the local economy.
Other compelling reasons to save dwindling asparagus acreage include supporting the farmers who still want to grow it and offering asparagus to customers who want to know where their food is grown and whether it is safe to eat.
There are no better climate or soil conditions, plus California growers have a deep knowledge of growing asparagus, so don’t give up on California-grown asparagus just yet. Farmers still have difficult choices ahead, but as long as we continue to buy asparagus grown in California to support them, we may continue to see fields of asparagus growing in Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Salinas and other areas of the state for years to come.
Thank you for supporting your local asparagus growers where quality, freshness and safety are unsurpassed. You’ll find the best California asparagus at your local farmers market.
The Concord Farmers Market is in Todos Santos Plaza Tuesdays & Thursdays.