Fresh market can add value to asparagus enterprises

Michigan asparagus growers are finding higher returns by marketing part of their crop to the fresh market.

Most of Michigan’s asparagus production has traditionally been marketed to either a canner or freezer. But over the last few years, many asparagus growers have begun marketing a portion of their crop to fresh market. Returns have generally been better in the fresh market with last year’s fresh price averaging $.20 a pound better than selling to the processed market.

The fresh asparagus market does have some increased costs and requires a higher level of management from producers. Harvested asparagus must be oriented in lugs instead of tossed into a much larger asparagus box. This generally calls for more, better-trained harvest labor and often results in higher harvest costs. In order to maintain fresh quality, delivery to packers is more frequent than in the processing market, usually requiring an extra trip or two per day.

Growers have found their grades are much better if they concentrate their fresh production on younger, more productive fields, which means that some asparagus growers may not be positioned to take advantage of this market. Fresh growers must also accept the fact that payment from packers and brokers is usually delayed on most of their crop until after the season is over, which can result in cash flow problems on some farms. Lastly, third-party food safety inspection is another cost for fresh asparagus growers that currently processed producers don’t need to worry about.

On the positive side, because spears are harvested at a larger size than in processed production, most fresh growers report that yields are higher when a field is picked for fresh. This fact, along with higher prices for production means that fresh market asparagus may be an attractive alternative to marketing only a processed crop.

Most fresh production moves through the packer and broker system, but growers who are closer to urban markets may have even more profitable alternatives including sales through farmer’s markets, road-side stands or even through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) plans.

Hopefully, Michigan will remain the pre-eminent asparagus processing center in North America, but diversification into the fresh market offers growers a chance take advantage of value added agriculture and the local food movement to increase farm income and strengthen their economic position.

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