Asparagus

Revised, August 2015 By Linda Naeve

Introduction

Asparagus is a high-value, labor-intensive perennial vegetable. It is an early season crop that lends itself well to small-scale and part-time farming operations as well as direct-to-consumer retail marketers when combined with other crops. U.S. annual per capita consumption of fresh asparagus has been increasing in recent years to 1.6 pounds in 2014. It is a low calorie, nutritious vegetable that is high in iron, fiber, and vitamins C and A; one cup of asparagus contains 3 grams of protein.

Marketing

Most of the asparagus harvested in the United States is sold as fresh. It is traditionally sold in pyramid crates packed with 1.5- to 2.5-pound bunches held with a rubber band. Several marketing alternatives are available to the asparagus grower: wholesale marketing, produce auctions, cooperatives, local retailers, roadside stands, and pick-your-own operations.

Production

Asparagus, native of temperate regions, succeeds best where either low temperatures or drought stops plant growth for a “rest” period and should not be considered for commercial production where warm conditions result in the plant's growth all year. Asparagus is generally planted using crowns, which are a root system of a year-old plant grown from seed. Although a small volume of stems can be harvest the first couple of years, it doesn’t come into full production until the third year and beyond. Studies in Michigan showed that 22-23 picking per season (about a six week harvest season) is optimal for both yield and spear size over time in the Midwest and Northeast. Asparagus is generally harvested by snapping which typically commands a high market price than cutting.
Approximately 23,800 acres of asparagus was harvested in the U.S. in 2014, down 6 percent from 2012. U.S. acreage is currently only about one-third of what it was 15 years ago due to increased imports from Central and South America. Essentially all of the U.S. commercial asparagus production occurs in California, Washington and Michigan. The national three-year yield average was 3,060 pounds per acre. In 2014, total asparagus production was 74.3 million pounds with 76.4 percent (56.8 million pounds) marketed as fresh and 13.5 million and 4.0 million pounds frozen or canned, respectively. The value of the 2014 asparagus crop was estimated at $73.4 million.

Prices

In 2014, the U.S. season average farm price for asparagus was $1 per pound, down from $1.21 per pound in 2013.

Financials

Although asparagus is a perennial crop and doesn’t require replanting every year, the estimated cost of planting is about $1,500 per acre. Labor: 20–30 hours. The costs of production of asparagus production varies, however, harvest labor is the highest expense.  Based on most recent production and price averages, the estimated gross value per acre is approximately $3,000 to $6,000 per acre for wholesale and retail markets, respectively.  

Sources

Vegetables, 2014 Summary (USDA NASS, 2015)
Vegetable and Pulses Outlook (USDA ERS, 2015)
Nutritive Value of Foods (USDA ARS, 2002)
Chicago Terminal Market Prices (USDA AMS)
National Retail Report: Fruits and Vegetables: Weekly Advertised Prices for Fruits and Vegetables at Major Retail Supermarket Outlets
Asparagus: A Small-Scale Agriculture Alternative (University of California)
Growing Asparagus (South Dakota State University)
Sample budget spreadsheet for Mature Asparagus Production (Pennsylvania State University)