The sad decline of local asparagus…
When I was a child, living in California, asparagus was a bountiful staple. Our mother, cooked it simply and served it stacked in big piles on the dinner table – we ate it just as it was.
Asparagus has been grown in Californian for over 150 years, it’s always been a plentiful and affordable crop. The main centre of production is around Stockton, yet it was also grown in Southern California. The area where we lived in Orange County was at the time very agricultural. We were just as likely to buy asparagus from shacks alongside the growing fields as our local supermarket. Although, our local asparagus fields have long-since been sold for tract housing, California has remained the biggest producer of asparagus in the United States. However, over the past couple of decades there has been a marked decline in production as farmers give up the crop.
The reasons are economic and reflect global trends across all markets where labour is the main cost of production. Asparagus is a particularly labour intensive crop compared to others. Recent trade deals have compounded the situation by eliminating tariffs on Latin American asparagus. This has resulted in cheaper imports making the home-grown crop comparatively expensive and unsustainable as a profitable crop. As retailers and consumers chase ever-lower costs, local producers are forced into finding alternative use for their fields. Some sources say that in the last 15 years Californian asparagus production may have fallen from a high of around 40,000 acres to 2,000 acres.
The same trends of course, can be seen in the UK, where asparagus from Latin America and elsewhere is available all year round. British asparagus growers are facing the same economic pressures as their American cousins. For the moment, there appears to be enough loyalty and goodwill for high quality and flavoursome British asparagus to keep it on our shelves. But what of the future – if, as in California, British retailers and consumers favour lower costs over local quality, will we also lose our home-grown asparagus?