Top yields at the Victoria Island Farms plot were: UCR 115 at 10,239 pounds per acre, Atlas at 8,482 pounds, UCR 65 at 8,321 pounds, and UCR 157 at 7,810 pounds.

The private variety Atlas, which produced the largest spear size but failed to match UCR 157 in quality traits, is from California Asparagus Seed and Transplant. UCR 65 also had large spears, which may create marketing problems, due to consumer preference for smaller spears.

The yields from the 12 replicated cultivars, including entrants from France, ranged from 10,239 pounds to 3,197 pounds.

"Several varieties looked good in the trial," Mullen said, "but right now, first and foremost, it looks like UCR 115 is a variety that has some real possibilities. Even at 85 days (after harvest began) last year, it still had really tight headed spears, when a lot of the other varieties had developed seed heads."

A new and improved variety for the delta’s peat soil would be welcomed by growers. Yields in San Joaquin County, he explained, have declined to averages of about 3,000 pounds because of generations of continuous culture of asparagus and/or field corn, which allowed Fusarium crown rot, a major disease of the crop, to become firmly entrenched.

High yield region

Meanwhile, asparagus fields along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley from Firebaugh to Kettleman City have been yielding 8,000 to 10,000 pounds in recent years, a stiff challenge for the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta industry, where the earliest recorded asparagus production was in 1852.

"I can’t say the west side growers don’t have some Fusarium too, but it is going to take them a while to catch up to the disease pressure we have."

UCR 115, from Mikeal Roose’s breeding program at the University of California, Riverside, will hopefully be patented and released within a year or two, said Mullen, who has evaluated the variety for the past six years.

UCR 157, also bred at UC, Riverside, has been a mainstay for the industry since 1975. "Our growers," Mullen said, "have grown it for 27 years and it is still a tough variety to beat."

The California asparagus acreage in 2000 for all districts was 37,000 acres, with District I, composed of San Joaquin, Contra Costa, Sutter, and Sacramento counties, having nearly 23,500 acres. District II, San Joaquin Valley and coastal counties, was about 8,000, and District III, Riverside and Imperial counties, had 5,500. After removal of marginal acreage, state acreage this year is estimated to be about 29,000.

The 2003 season did not signal a turn-around for the industry, but several growers did a bit better, Mullen said. "It’s been a positive year, about the first time in four years. Easter was later, Mexico got out of the market a little earlier, and we had cool weather, so supply and demand were more in balance." By June, product from Washington was starting to appear on the market.

Beat break-even

He said break-even for asparagus is $24 to $26 per 26-pound crate. "We had a good month, where the price was about $34 for export and $30 domestic. That helped a lot."

California growers, Mullen said, have fought high costs of labor and workman’s compensation rates in competing with imports of asparagus from Mexico.

"Since the advent of NAFTA, with greater access to the market and no tariff duties, Mexico, in many seasons, continues to stay in the market longer to compete with our production." During 2002, some delta growers blamed losses of up to $500 an acre on cheaper imports.

Although California once supported a vigorous asparagus canning industry, canning and frozen utilization ended in 1985, and the crop has been devoted to the fresh market since.

Mullen also conducted a pre-emergence weed control trial in 2002 to gauge materials, first in March and again in the following month, on one-year-old crowns of UCR 157 at Zuckerman-Heritage Farms on McDonald Island, west of Stockton.

He reported that the best control of common lambsquarter, poa annua, swamp smartweed, and barnyardgrass was with Chateau (flumioxazin) at the high rate, followed by Milestone (azafenadin) and Chateau at the low rate.

"All treatments provided excellent crop safety, except for a slight crop fern vigor reduction by the high rate of Chateau at the early rating time," Mullen said.