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Disappearing Asparagus

Cindy Carcamo at L.A. Times

Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

It was a late March morning and dozens of women and men descended on a San Joaquin Valley asparagus farm — one of the last in the state. The workers walked along the furrows, cutting the newly sprouted spears at precisely nine inches, a market standard.

Later that day, farmer Aaron Barcellos surveyed the land peppered with the perennial that for many announces the arrival of spring. He is one of the last producers standing in California, a fourth-generation farmer who co-owns A-Bar Ag Enterprises in Firebaugh.

The 59-year-old picked a firm stalk from the ground. He pointed to its tightly braided tips and beefy stem.

“This is beautiful ‘grass,’” Barcellos said, a nickname growers often use for asparagus, although it’s not considered a true grass.

“Every spear of asparagus you see in the store is hand cut by an individual,” he said, referring to his own 120 workers.

The labor required to harvest the crop is partly why Barcellos fears for the future of asparagus. Once considered the king of vegetables in California agriculture and a seasonal delicacy exported worldwide, asparagus is on the decline here — the industry succumbing to the pressures of the global market, largely because of labor costs.

At its most recent peak in 2000, California farmers harvested 37,000 acres of asparagus, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture. About 10% of that acreage has been lost every year since. Now there are fewer than 3,000 acres of asparagus left in the Golden State, according to the latest available data.

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Fast-growing asparagus once flourished on California farms. Why is it disappearing?
At the turn of the 21st century, California growers were farming more than 36,000 acres of asparagus. Now, fewer than 3,000 acres are in production in the state for commercial sale. These are the last three farms.