It’s not just a spring treat anymore, thanks to global sourcing.
Originally printed in the March 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Asparagus is a Mediterranean native that’s enjoyed a place at mankind’s table since times B.C. The Egyptians offered these green spears as gifts for the Gods. The Romans considered this veggie a delicacy, and France’s King Louis VIX commanded his gardeners to grow asparagus in a greenhouse so he could enjoy it year-round.
Today, four U.S. states collectively grow some 60 to 70 million pounds a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS). Yet, it’s been the gradual shift in supply to imports — more than 600 million pounds annually from Mexico and Peru alone, according to the June 2022-released report, 2021/2022 Fresh Asparagus Statistics, Category Trends & Demographics, by the Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association (PAIA) — that has both fueled and fed American’s double-digit growing appetite (25.3%) for this veggie. Specifically, per capita asparagus consumption increased from 1.46 pounds in 2015 to 1.83 pounds in 2020.
“Asparagus for us is a 365-day item. We procure asparagus from Peru, Mexico and our personal favorite, California,” says John Savidan, senior director of produce and floral at Gelson’s Markets, a 27-store grocery chain based in Encino, CA. “Asparagus is a staple item that our customers have grown to love and have year-round.”
Greater supply, growing SKUs, a soup-to-nuts of preparation styles and seasonally-themed promotions are all ways to keep shoppers putting asparagus on their plates.
- PLAN FOR YEAR-ROUND AVAILABILITY
“The sourcing of asparagus from Mexico and Peru, as well as domestic farms, enables us to have product year-round,” says Alan Guttmann, vice president of vegetable sourcing for Robinson Fresh, in Eden Prairie, MN.
In 2021, based on USDA data, imports totaled 665 million pounds of asparagus, with 65% of this from Mexico, 34% from Peru and the remainder from Canada, Ecuador and Argentina.
Domestically, Michigan produced 25.7 million pounds of this veggie in 2021, or nearly half (42%) of the U.S. total, followed by Washington (16 million pounds, 26.3%), California (13.1 million pounds, 21.7%), and New Jersey (5.7 million pounds, 9.5%), according to the USDA ERS data.
“We have probably run asparagus in our ads in just about every month of the year,” says Mark Hendricks Sr., produce director at Pyramid Foods, a Rogersville, MO-headquartered 37-store retailer with banners that include Price Cutter, Save-A-Lot and Country Mart. “This lets our customers know either when the peak periods of availability are, or just to let them know asparagus is in our stores pretty much daily.”
Crystal Valley Foods, based in Miami, imports asparagus from Mexico and Peru, according to Katiana Valdes, marketing director. “From Mexico, we import asparagus during all of the major windows, including during the spring Caborca season that peaks from February to April; in Central Mexico, peaking June to August; and Baja, from October-December.”
Peru is a reliable source for asparagus 52 weeks a year, Valdes adds. “It is because of this consistency that we make sure we always have Peruvian asparagus to supplement our other sourcing regions throughout the year. It helps to ensure that our customers are always covered in case of weather-related or other unforeseen issues. The Peruvian season typically peaks September through early December.”
In the U.S., fresh Michigan asparagus is traditionally available from early May to the end of June, according to the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board (MAAB), in DeWitt, MI.
“We start the first week of May and go through the first of July,” says Ken Korson, category manager for North Bay Produce Inc., in Traverse City, MI. “Our production will be the first in Michigan with conventional green and purple asparagus, with organic starting in the northern region the third week of May and going into July, as long as the weather doesn’t get too hot.”
The months of April through June are asparagus season in Washington and New Jersey, while California’s harvest spans from January to June from the southern desert to central California coastal regions.
- GIVE CUSTOMERS WHAT THEY WANT
Green is by far the most popular and dominant color of asparagus sold, and also the easiest to consistently produce, says Gelson’s Savidan. “We do carry all colors of asparagus — green, white and purple, when available.”
White asparagus is a limited-volume specialty crop, according to Valdes, however Crystal Valley Foods has developed a consistent white asparagus supply program. “We import and market white asparagus from Peru nearly 52 weeks a year. In the U.S., it is primarily destined for the upscale foodservice market, with a much smaller percentage going into the retail sector.”
The European market tends to prefer white asparagus to green, she notes, but adds there are opportunities in the U.S. for retail to educate consumers on this item. “The U.S. retail customer is lacking awareness of the product, its distinct preparation requirements (it should be peeled) and recipe ideas.”
Retailers will often offer white asparagus in their ‘A’ stores, says Jeff Friedman, president of CarbAmericas, in Fort Lauderdale, FL. “A mix of white and green asparagus creates an eye-catching display.”
Purple asparagus is a novelty crop, adds Valdes. “It’s less readily available, with a small acreage that allows for only a few pallets a week seasonally.”
Purple is part of the asparagus mix grown at Todd Greiner Farms in Hart, MI.
“We grow a little purple, and it’s been finding a home at retail,” says Steve Rudat, account and supply chain manager.
When it comes to asparagus sizing, says Gelson’s Savidan, “we prefer the large or extra-large, and really never go smaller than that.”
Jumbo asparagus remains more popular as a foodservice item, while standard and large asparagus are popular with customers, according to Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties, in Pompano Beach, FL.
“When grilling, thick stalks seem to be what customers are looking for,” adds Pyramid Foods’ Hendricks. “For the home cooks in our area who don’t do a lot of grilling, the thin stalks seem to be preferred.”
Organic asparagus is becoming increasingly popular, however, fumigation requirements from Peru prevent Crystal Valley Foods from offering it year-round, says Valdes. However, it currently has an organic program in the spring Mexican asparagus season.
Organic asparagus has made gains in popularity with some retailers, says Southern Specialties’ Eagle, “but, the higher cost is a factor in limiting demand.”
Most of the asparagus sold by Ayco Farms Inc., in Pompano Beach, FL, “is bulk and banded,” says Anthony Giuffreda, marketing specialist.
However, more retailers are offering packaged products.
“We offer trays of asparagus and Brussels sprouts in our Pick a Pack sets. In these sets, customers can buy one at a certain price and get a discount when they buy two. Currently, the deal price shows a savings of $1.58 when they buy two,” explains Pyramid Foods’ Hendricks.
Importers of Peruvian asparagus are also making this commodity available in many offerings, according to Priscilla Lleras, the Waxahachie, TX-based executive director of PAIA. This includes “bagged, value-added packing, microwavable packaging, tips, etc.”
Retail requests are growing for value-added packs, agrees Crystal Valley Foods’ Valdes, whose company offers 8-ounce tips and 12-ounce cut asparagus spears as well as 1- and 2-pound bags.
“These offer a few benefits from the retail and consumer standpoint,” she explains. “First, they are in a controlled atmosphere bag, which helps extend shelf life a bit. Second, depending on the type of pack, these are ready to eat or cook. Third, most come in microwaveable bags.”
Consumers continue to be concerned about cleanliness and health, Valdes adds. “There is good demand for packaged produce that gives shoppers a sense of security. Packaged or value-added produce also typically comes with a scannable barcode, which helps with touchless or ‘scan and go’ checkouts some retailers are moving toward.”
Continued growth in value-added asparagus is a plus, says CarbAmericas’ Friedman. “I think this type of product will help the category overall continue its 5% to 6% dollar growth annually.”
- BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
Make sure shoppers can find fresh asparagus in-store.
“We encourage retailers to make the asparagus area a destination by merchandising green, purple and white asparagus in the same area. End cap displays during promotions have shown to increase sales,” recommends Southern Specialties’ Eagle.
When California asparagus is in season, Gelson’s Markets will build large displays offering tiered sizing, says Savidan. “We showcase extra large, large, and tips, and we call out using special signage the different ways to prepare and enjoy each size. Asparagus displays are some of the prettiest in the department when you utilize all the colors, sizes and cross-merchandise great accompany items.”
Refrigerated or iced displays are best for shelf life and presentation.
“For ad weeks or peak selling weeks, you can leave dry out of refrigeration because the turns should be fast enough,” says North Bay Produce’s Korson. “But if you are not promoting and not turning product, you can put it in water as long as you change the water daily.”
Many of Pyramid Foods’ stores use industry displays that consist of a tray that holds water and a lid with holes so that the bundles will stand in ½ inch of water in the tray without falling over, says Hendricks. “This method requires trimming the butt daily to keep the stalks hydrated and ready for sale. Ice beds are used in a few locations, with the ice changed out daily to keep the product fresh and free from bacteria that could shorten the shelf life and contribute to shrink.”
- SET OUT RECIPE & MEAL SUGGESTIONS
Use the technique of cross-merchandising to offer recipe and meal suggestions and ultimately increase sales of asparagus.
“We always offer a hollandaise packet or butter in an adjacent display as serving suggestions,” says Pyramid Foods’ Hendricks.
Since the Michigan asparagus season aligns with the start of the grilling season in this region, retailers could cross promote with proteins, says Jamie Clover Adams, the MAAB’s executive director. “Retailers that provide meal ideas are adding value for shoppers. Fresh Michigan asparagus could be promoted as a fancy vegetable to include in a restaurant-style meal cooked at home.”
The MAAB is upgrading its website, which offers dozens of recipes that retailers can share with shoppers. The board also offers a retail dietitian toolkit to help promote Michigan asparagus.
“Asparagus is becoming a popular brunch item and can be added to quiches, frittatas and other egg dishes. It can also be enjoyed in a crudité platter, so it’s beneficial to cross merchandise asparagus with ranch and yogurt dips,” says Crystal Valley Foods’ Valdes.
“In-store, demos are also a great vehicle for increasing retail movement of both white and green asparagus by offering customers a chance to try the product perhaps in a unique way that they might not have thought of before,” she adds.
- PROMOTE YEAR-ROUND
Year-round availability means 52 weeks of promotional possibilities.
“While Peruvian asparagus is available year-round, we have seasons with more availability beginning September through January that results in a 20% to 40% increase in volume and just in time for holiday celebrations,” says the PAIA’s Lleras.
Holidays are a high-demand time when shoppers are less price sensitive, adds CarbAmericas’ Friedman. “Asparagus can be $2.99 or $3.99 during the holidays, and it will still move. Off holidays, promotions can be better. In fact, we worked with a retailer to ad price asparagus in late February to March as the Caborca crop came on. They sold it as a loss leader for 99 cents or $1.29 a pound, and on a front-of-department end cap display, and moved more than during the holidays.”
In the spring and early summer, retailers can tap into the domestic crop by highlighting ‘buy local.’ Shorter supply chains often translate into good pricing, which is important to consumers during this time of double-digit food inflation.
“One of our major Michigan retailers does an excellent job with advertising, signing displays with our growers and selling local asparagus,” says Todd Greiner Farms’ Rudat. “There’s definitely a taste and shelf life advantage of going from field to hydro cooler to store shelf in a day or two.”