Did you know Washington State used to be a major producer of asparagus? And who do you think did all the harvesting?
Asparagus Farmers Face Largest Danger from Peruvian Imports
Imported asparagus from Peru has already devastated asparagus producers in the U.S., but the Peru FTA would accelerate the damage to the remaining farmers in California, Washington, and Michigan. U.S. asparagus imports from all countries , both fresh and frozen , have been exploding since the early 1990‚ when NAFTA and the Peru trade preferences went into effect. Since 1991, total fresh and frozen asparagus imports increased five-fold, from 46 million pounds in 1991 to 278 million pounds in 2007. Peru‚ fresh and frozen asparagus exports to the U.S. market have grown even faster, rising nearly 2,500 percent from 6 million pounds in 1991 to 160 million pounds in 2006. Peru‚ exports now represent more than 3 out of 5 pounds of fresh and frozen asparagus imported by the United States, up from less than one in ten in 1991.
Proponents of the Peru asparagus trade initially claimed that the fresh asparagus imports from Peru would complement the domestic asparagus industry by allowing consumers to get fresh asparagus year-round, even when domestic asparagus was not in season. Peru grew to become a year-round producer and exporter of fresh asparagus, even shipping fresh asparagus during the growing season when California growers produce most of the fresh asparagus for the American market. Increased competitive imports during the growing season depressed prices for fresh asparagus and undercut domestic suppliers. In 2003, California asparagus farmers had to plow their crops under because asparagus prices were too low to cover even the cost of harvesting the crop.
Although importers of fresh asparagus took immediate advantage of Peru‚ access to the U.S. market, asparagus processors also gain from increasing Peruvian asparagus exports. Under the Peru FTA, asparagus processors would gain permanent access to inexpensive fresh asparagus imports as well as processed asparagus made overseas where farm and factory labor is cheaper. In a House Committee on Ways and Means hearing, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents many vegetable processors and supports the Peru trade deal, stated: ‚Many GMA members benefit from these commitments through access to duty-free imports of seasonal vegetables.”
Asparagus processors were some of the first vegetable companies to invest in Peruvian processing plants. U.S. imports of processed and frozen asparagus from Peru have also started to escalate. In 1991, Peru exported 394,000 pounds of processed and frozen asparagus to the United States, but by 2006 that figure had grown 62 times larger to 28.8 million pounds. Del Monte and Green Giant have relocated their processing plants from Washington state to Peru since 2003. In written comments to the U.S. International Trade Commission on the Peru Free Trade Agreement, Green Giant noted that it could not supply asparagus to U.S. consumers from American processing plants at a competitive price and if the Peru FTA does not go into effect, it will consider shifting production to Mexico or China.
As imports have skyrocketed, asparagus acreage in the United States has been cut nearly in half. Between 1991 and 2006, harvested asparagus acreage for the fresh and processed market fell from 92,000 acres to 45,000 acres. Washington, which was a major producer of asparagus for processing, lost three fifths of the harvested asparagus acres between 2000 and 2006, falling from 23,000 to 9,000 acres. California lost more than a third of its acres over the same period and Michigan‚ harvested asparagus acres fell by 29 percent.
Asparagus growers are the canaries in the coal mine of the Peruvian vegetable trade. Fresh asparagus imports have driven some domestic farmers out of business and remaining growers will face low prices for their crops due to competition from Peruvian imports. Already, asparagus processors have begun to shift their operations to Peru. More processing houses may close in the United States, making it difficult for farmers in Washington and Michigan to get their crops canned or frozen and onto grocery store shelves. The current higher prices many farmers are enjoying could sour when imports of fresh and processed asparagus increases under the Peru Free Trade Agreement.