By Vicky Boyd

Kings Crown Packing, a fixture in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta west of Stockton for 30 years, packed its last crate of asparagus earlier this year. Faced with rising labor costs, increasing production expenses and competition from lower-cost imports, packinghouse owners made the tough decision to shut down the operation for good.

But a few asparagus growers in the county are still hanging on by running as lean an operation as possible.

"We don't have a labor contractor," said Jeff Klein, who grows asparagus west of Stockton and chairs the California Asparagus Commission. "I do everything in-house. It's my own people who are cutting, It's our own hydrocooler and we sell it ourselves. That's the only reason I'm still in it. Whether I'm going to stay in it is anybody's guess."

Not just a county issue

Asparagus production has declined in San Joaquin County during the past 20 years, but it's not just a local phenomenon – it's a statewide issue, said Cher Watte, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission.

"San Joaquin County has definitely lost it's No. 1 statewide position as the top producing county in California," she said. "But the industry as a whole is definitely on a downward trend." In 2000, the state's asparagus growers harvested about 36,000 acres. Currently, there are 5,000 to 6,000 acres in the state, Watte said. 

Within San Joaquin County, the 2017 Agricultural Crop Report shows 1,310 acres with a farm-gate value of about $9.8 million. In 2000, the county's growers harvested 23,600 acres with a farm-gate value of about $57.8 million, according to the 2000 Agricultural Crop Report. That year, asparagus was No. 7 in the county's top 10 crops by value.

Watte pointed to the North American Free Trade Agreement, implemented in 1994, as a turning point for the industry because it phased out 25 percent tariffs on imported Mexican asparagus. Over the years, the amount of imported asparagus has increased to the point where it now dominates the U.S. market.

In 2017, imports of fresh asparagus from Mexico, Peru and Chili amounted to 502.4 million pounds compared to about 66.9 million pounds produced in the United States, according to the Ag Marketing Resource Center, a collaboration between Iowa State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. California accounted for about 12.8 million pounds of that domestic production, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

With questions about water quality and availability, increasing minimum wages and overtime, labor availability and international competition, Watte said asparagus doesn't pencil out any more for many farmers.

"A lot of the decisions farmers are making to stay in the asparagus business or leave are completely justified," she said. "It's a business, and these are business decisions. And I 100 percent support them."

'It really hurt'

Bob Ferguson, who grew asparagus until recently as part of a diversified operation in the Delta, was part of a meeting a few months ago with the three Kings Crown owners. Ferguson had no ownership in the company, but he had had them pack and market his crop for years.

"There were three people, each going back at least three generations," Ferguson said. "To see the frustration written across their faces, it really hurt. I feel for them."

But he said it ultimately boiled down to the bottom line. At the beginning of the asparagus season, Delta growers needed at least $70 for a 28-pound crate. If prices were lower, growers quickly got into the red and had a difficult time climbing back to profitability as the season progressed.

In the past, Mexico would come into the market during the winter and early spring. As temperatures rose down south, causing quality to decline, Mexican product would retreat. With less overall asparagus on the market, California produces would enjoy a larger market share and stronger prices. But that didn't happen in 2018, Ferguson said.

"It flat-lined at $61 per box – that's where our costs are," he said. "I don't farm to just break even."

As Ferguson and the others looked to the future, he said they saw a minimum wage scheduled to increase another $1 per hour on Jan. 1, 2019. On top of that, the number of hours employees can work before overtime kicks in will be reduced. And that's if you can even find experienced workers to cut the crop. he said.

In addition, his 162 acres of asparagus plants would be another year older, with an accompanying 9-10 percent production decline.

"It just doesn't work, it's that simple," Ferguson said.

During its heyday nearly 30 years ago, Kings Crown each year peaked with all 11 lines running and packing the equivalent of more than 5,000 28-pound boxes daily. Semi-trucks would line up at the docks waiting to transport the product to West Coast grocery chains.

Klein points to the rich peat he farms as one of the main reasons he remains in the asparagus business. The soil boosts his production to about 2,000 28-pound boxes per acre. 

Klein pays his harvest crew $10 per box, but he says the high yields allow the workers to cut a lot of ‘grass' without walking far. A good worker can make $200 for just six hours of work.

If he farmed other ground that produced lower yields, Klein said he'd end up paying his crews $20 per box, which wouldn't pencil out. Even with his streamlined operation, he said he still needs $55 per box.

Changing grocer practices

Unlike grocery chains of a few decades ago that would take seasonal produce items like California asparagus, retailers today want year-round supplies, Klein said. They'll source from Mexico during the winter and spring, then buy from Southern Hemisphere suppliers during the summer and fall.

And most grocery stores won't offer consumers a choice of locally grown California asparagus and product grown elsewhere, either. They'll have asparagus from only one source in the produce section. "That's why nobody cares about California – they really don't need us," Klein said.

Watching growers convert asparagus ground to other crops and close packinghouses has not been easy for Watte, who has headed the asparagus commission for nearly 20 years. The recent announcement of Kings Crown's closing just served as another nail in the coffin.

"To me, it's a very emotional shift because these are the heart and the sole of the industry. But I get it. I'm the daughter and wife of farmers so I understand –  there's a cultural shift in the industry."