Asparagus Growers Are Facing a Crisis - Blame state's high minimum wage and federal trade policies that make it cheaper to import from foreign countries


July 8, 2003

Walla Walla, WA - Washington asparagus growers are pondering the future of their industry after two major processors in Toppenish and Walla Walla announced late last week that they would stop canning the crop next year.

The state Asparagus Commission on Monday blamed the shutdowns on high labor costs and federal trade policies that make asparagus production cheaper outside of the country.

Washington has led the United States in processing asparagus and ranked second in production.

Industry leaders say most growers in the state now face the unlikely chance of finding another sales outlet, idling their fields or making a costly investment on another crop in an already tough farming world.

State and federal governments can still help save the industry, but lawmakers must commit to improving the business climate, said Kevin Bouchey, a Toppenish grower and president of the commodity commission.

The state's willingness to try to retain The Boeing Co. through various cost incentives has never extended to the asparagus industry, said Bouchey, the region's largest Del Monte grower.

Although the two differ in size, legislators should consider whether they want Washington to remain a major player in agriculture, he said.

"We have to look at the bigger picture," Bouchey said in a telephone interview. "We can't just settle on the potential that we can keep Boeing here and things are going to be great."

According to the commission's announcement, Del Monte Foods will no longer can asparagus at its Toppenish plant, instead opting to ship it in from Peru.

Federal policies intended to convert South American cocaine growers into asparagus farmers have flooded the domestic market with cheap Peruvian asparagus, commission representatives said.

Seneca Foods Corp. has also informed growers that asparagus processing would cease at its newly purchased Walla Walla plant. Seneca is moving to increase corn processing, Bouchey said.

The other plant in the state, operated by Seneca at Dayton, can't accept products from any more growers at current levels, Bouchey said.

Del Monte itself employed about 350 workers during the asparagus season, which runs from April to early June. The company has been processing asparagus in Toppenish since 1948.

Bouchey estimated that the Yakima Valley accounts for roughly three-quarters of the 2,000 employees associated with the two plants each year.

It's unlikely that fresh wholesalers in the state could absorb the additional 10 million pounds of asparagus, based on 2002 figures, Bouchey said.

Fresh prices are about 13 cents lower than the 58 cents per pound paid for canned asparagus.

The strength of Seneca within the canned-foods industry and labor costs would probably not make creation of a grower processing cooperative a viable option, Bouchey said.

Under a law approved by voters in 1998, Washington adjusts its minimum wage each year to match the federal consumer-price index for urban wage earners and clerical workers.

Opponents of that system, including state Sen. Jim Honeyford, say that standard shouldn't apply to farm workers. Unions have resisted any change.

Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, has unsuccessfully proposed limiting the increase for agricultural laborers. He could not be reached Monday for comment on the asparagus developments.

Earlier this year, market observers had indicated that Seneca might close its Dayton plant because of those issues.

Representatives for Seneca and Del Monte could not be reached Monday evening.


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