Keep customers happy year-round: Peruvian asparagus is harvested and imported into the U.S. every month of the year.
Originally printed in the November 2021 issue of Produce Business.
A sure sign of spring in the Northeastern U.S. used to be farmers markets advertising “fresh grass.” That meant first of the season asparagus had arrived.
While local is still a big deal, this green stalk-shaped vegetable is now available year-round on retail shelves, thanks to a combination of domestic production and imports.
Per capita U.S. asparagus consumption has almost doubled in the last decade-plus, from 1.29 pounds in 2009 to 1.83 pounds in 2020, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service statistics from April 2021. And asparagus represented 1.2% of total produce sales and 2.5% of total vegetable dollars as of the 52 weeks ending Oct. 2, 2021, according to Nielsen Total U.S. data, as provided by New York, NY-headquartered Nielsen.
“Customers like asparagus, they want it, and now it’s available year-round,” says Vince Mastromauro, director of produce operations for Sunset Foods, a five-store chain based in Highland Park, IL. “We promote it whether it comes from nearby Michigan, or California or Peru.”
Imports of asparagus have increasingly led the charge and share of this veggie on American’s plates. In 2020, Peru ranked second only to Mexico in fresh asparagus imported to the U.S., representing 35.2% of all asparagus imports into the U.S. last year, according to the 2020/2021 Fresh Asparagus, Statistics, Category Trends & Demographics report published June 2021 by the Waxahachie, TX-based Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association (PAIA). What’s more, both the volume and dollars of imported Peruvian asparagus have increased 3% annually over the past four years.
“Peruvian asparagus is a big part of our program. Quality is good,” says Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral for Tops Friendly Markets, a 157-store chain headquartered in Williamsville, NY.
Here are six ways to sell more asparagus from Peru:
1. CAPITALIZE ON STEADY AVAILABILITY
Asparagus grows in northern and southern regions in Peru and is harvested and imported into the U.S. every month of the year.
“Peru typically peaks in the fall season from September/October through December; however, Peru is a reliable source for asparagus 52 weeks a year. 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,” says Katiana Valdez, marketing director for Crystal Valley Foods, in Miami, FL.
Of the 206 million pounds of Peruvian asparagus imported to the U.S. in 2020, October represented the heaviest month, at nearly 30 million pounds, followed by December, January and November from 26 to 23 million pounds. March and April were the lightest months at less than 4 million pounds, while May through September ranged from 15 to 21 million pounds, according to USDA data as shared by the PAIA.
“The largest volumes come in at a good time with strong demand in the fall and winter for everyday meals and holidays,” says Tops Friendly Markets’ Cady.
Availability is forecast to be especially strong for December, adds Jorge Bastidas, asparagus category manager for Alpine Fresh, in Miami, FL. “Some of our farms are set to have high production during this month. In general, we have worked hard to concentrate production for some of the biggest holidays to offer promotional volumes to retailers.”
The U.S. isn’t the only market for Peruvian asparagus and competition for supply can affect pricing.
“Peruvian asparagus is very globalized. Depending on the seasonality, it could have market value in four separate continents at any given time,” says Angela Gamiotea, marketing and social media for Farm Direct Supply, in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
2. GO FOR COLORS & SIZES
Green is the lion’s share of asparagus sold at Tops Friendly Markets, says Cady. “It’s about 99.5% of what we sell. We dabble in the white and purple, but availability is sometimes hit or miss.”
White Peruvian asparagus is available year-round, while purple Peruvian production is in March and April, June and July, and October to December.
White is a limited volume specialty crop, but Crystal Valley Foods has developed a consistent white asparagus supply program, according to Valdez. “We import and market white asparagus from Peru nearly 52 weeks/year.”
“White asparagus in the U.S. is typically a foodservice item with a much smaller percent going into the retail sector,” she adds. “However, there is a huge opportunity for retailers to educate consumers on this delicious item that is already very well-loved in Europe. The U.S. retail customer is lacking awareness of the product, its distinct preparation requirements (it must be peeled), and recipe ideas.”
Purple asparagus is a latecomer that has received good attention, says Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties, in Pompano Beach, FL. “Some think the purple is sweeter and more tender. Volume is limited, so it’s difficult to promote.”
When available, feature all three colors in a retail display, suggests Farm Direct Supply’s Gamiotea. “This adds a nice splash of color, which can attract consumers and create incremental sales.”
Size “large” is what Sunset Foods’ Mastromauro normally orders. “The imported standard tends to be too thin for our customers, hence large is better.”
Some 75% to 80% of demand is for “standard” and “large” size asparagus, says Southern Specialties’ Eagle. “We do have customers, usually foodservice customers, that prefer the jumbo size.”
3. PACKAGING SELLS
Fresh asparagus is often sold in a bundle secured by a rubber band. Yet, the value-added pre-packaged product can add to sales.
“Value-added product also allows you to give shoppers more options. Peruvian asparagus is available in several value-added presentations, including bags, microwavable packages, and cut tips,” says Priscilla Lleras-Bush, executive director of the PAIA.
Crystal Valley sells its value-added asparagus as 8-ounce tips, 12-ounce cut, and 1- and 2-pound bags, says Valdez, which offers a few benefits from the retail and consumer standpoint.
“First, the asparagus is in a controlled atmosphere bag, which helps extend shelf life,” says Valdez. “Secondly, depending on the type of pack, it is ready to eat or cook. Third, most of it is in a microwaveable bag. Consumers continue to be concerned about cleanliness and health, and packaged produce 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.”
4. DESIGN IMPULSE-GRABBING DISPLAYS
Visual appeal is important when selling asparagus, says PAIA’s Lleras-Bush. “Shoppers need to see asparagus to buy it. It’s still very much an impulse item so stores must build attractive, easy-to-shop displays.”
Southern Specialties Eagle says there is often a lift in sales when retailers promote asparagus on an end cap, with the butts of the stalks on a moist pad. “It’s possible to keep asparagus out of refrigeration for a short time. However, for everyday retail, keep refrigerated.”
Education is another way to promote asparagus.
“Asparagus offers tremendous health benefits. It’s a low-calorie vegetable packed with vitamins A, C and E. It is also a great source of fiber,” says the PAIA’s Lleras-Bush, who recommends stores collaborate with dietitians and nutritionists to incorporate asparagus into educational programs and promotions.
The PAIA offers a category management plan with a wealth of information to assist retailers to analyze the fresh asparagus business and identify buying trends.
5. GIVE CULINARY INSPIRATION
Asparagus consumption has been holding steady the past few years, but there was a big bump in 2020, says Lleras-Bush. “Maybe this is due to the trend of people cooking more at home and wanting a more restaurant-quality meal. As such, providing point-of-sale for usage is a useful way to promote asparagus. Help shoppers find new ways to use asparagus and sales will increase. Most households only purchase asparagus once or twice a year, so there is a huge opportunity to help them understand how to do more with it and purchase a few more times.”
Cross-merchandising with complementary products also boosts sales.
“Asparagus is popularly prepared with lemons, meats (steak), and bacon, so those products would be good to pair with the vegetable. It is also a favorite for spring and summer cookouts, parties, family gatherings and it is quickly becoming a holiday staple, so retailers should cross merchandise asparagus with meats and other grilling and holiday essentials. It is also becoming a popular brunch item and can be added to quiches, frittatas and other egg dishes,” suggests Crystal Valley Foods’ Valdez.
One of the best times to promote Peruvian asparagus is fall and early winter.
“Build big displays leading up to Thanksgiving and continue to promote to Christmas if the market warrants,” says Jeff Friedman, president of CarbAmericas, in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
Beyond that, to keep consistent sales, supermarkets should create promotions all year. “Asparagus is no longer a seasonal commodity. Shoppers should have a good supply year-round without interruption,” says the PAIA’s Lleras-Bush.