This year’s Peruvian asparagus crop has faced challenges from weather, but rising consumption trends offer a bright spot for retailers.
The U.S. typically sees asparagus imported from Mexico in spring and from Peru in the fall, September through December, coinciding with Peru’s spring in the Southern Hemisphere. Generally, asparagus grows best in moderate temperatures with a good amount of sunlight, but this year there have been some obstacles for Peruvian crops.
Conditions have been unseasonably warm during an El Niño year, says Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties, Pompano Beach, Fla.
“This has been affecting yields and causing supply challenges,” he said, adding that overall yields are down a whopping 40%.
Harvest Sensations, Miami, agrees that El Niño has caused problems.
“Growing conditions have been a struggle; rain in March hurt the crop, and warmer weather with the El Niño effect has also hurt the growing conditions,” said spokesperson Stefanie Gutierrez.
For Seven Seas Florida, part of the St. Louis-based Tom Lange Co. Inc., heavy rains from a tropical cyclone in March caused some damage to fields in northern Peru.
“This is affecting yields in that area,” said Tracy Wood, vice president of sales. “Long-term effects for the primary season, September to January, remain to be seen.”
However, he said the company is “expecting to see normal production and yields from the southern region of Peru for the big season of September through January.”
Crystal Valley Foods, Miami, imports asparagus from Peru and Mexico and occasionally also has domestic product available at times. But Peru, said Katiana Valdes, director of marketing and business development, “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. It helps ensure our customers are always covered in case of a weather-related or other unforeseen issue.”
Asparagus consumption is trending upward in the U.S., Valdes said.
“As consumer interest in healthy eating and culinary diversity has increased, so has the demand for asparagus,” she said.
Seven Seas has seen per capita asparagus consumption in the U.S. steadily increase by 7% to 8% annually. Harvest Sensations is seeing a 15% increase in asparagus sales post-COVID.
“It’s a great item for home chefs, served warm or cold,” Gutierrez said.
Harvest Sensations provides Peruvian asparagus mostly to restaurants, cruise ships, hotels, schools and hospitals. It also has a lot of success around the holidays.
“We are mostly a foodservice company, and asparagus has been one of the most promoted commodities during the biggest holidays of the year — Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day,” Gutierrez said.
The company has direct relationships with growers, “giving us the ability to offer competitive deals to our customers and become more attractive to the market,” she said. “We provide specification sheets, promotional flyers, ad and promotional pricing and ad lids to our customers to keep them informed.”
Southern Specialties’ customer base includes retailers, club stores, foodservice distributors and wholesalers, mostly from the Midwest to the East Coast. And sales are steady year-round, said Eagle, “with the greatest demand around holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.”
The company particularly makes it easy for consumers to enjoy its products with microwavable packaging, he said.
While Peruvian asparagus sells well at Morton Williams Supermarkets, Bronx, N.Y., “at certain times of the year, with the holidays, people look for it more,” said Marc Goldman, director of produce and floral. “It’s like anything else — sales depends on quality and price.”
At Giant Food, Landover, Md., asparagus sales increase during March and April for Easter “and as customer mood shifts to spring-focused meals,” said Megan McCawley, category manager for produce and floral. “June is also a great month for asparagus sales when customers begin grilling and entertaining for Father’s Day celebrations.” Sales also spike for Christmas, she said.
WORKING WITH RETAILERS
There is still great potential for the Peruvian asparagus industry to help grow the asparagus category and increase demand, Valdes says.
“We need to remind asparagus consumers about its great health benefits and introduce new and innovative usages,” she said. “We also need to reach out to those consumers who may not know about this amazing vegetable yet.”
Crystal Valley encourages retailers to continue to educate consumers about how to use asparagus and its health benefits through traditional POS as well as by sharing recipes and information on websites and social platforms.
“In-store demos are also a great vehicle for increasing retail movement and offer customers a chance to try the product, perhaps in a unique way they might not have thought of before,” Valdes said.
Crystal Valley’s marketing team can help customers produce some of the content and marketing material they might need.
Morton Williams Supermarkets relies on verbal information about asparagus to inform its customers since the stores are so tight on space.
“Asparagus is an everyday type of item now, not specialty,” Goldman said. “We don’t have room to provide a lot of information, but anyone can ask the produce manager and he’ll help them. If he can’t, he’ll direct them to the chef, who can.”
To boost sales, stores can promote asparagus sales with signage and slightly larger displays, as well as featuring the vegetable in circulars and on social media. Cross-merchandising works well with asparagus, especially with garlic, lemons and meats such as steak and bacon, which all pair well with the vegetable.
Asparagus is also becoming more popular as a brunch item, in quiches, frittatas and other egg dishes.
“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,” Valdes said.
When on promotion, Giant stores cross-merchandise asparagus “with other Bonus Buy items to offer a bundle of deals,” McCawley said. When it’s not on promotion, fresh-cut asparagus is cross-merchandised with bundles, “so the customer has the convenience option, too. Seasonally, we will add hollandaise and lemons to the displays for convenient shopping and inspiration.”
Today’s consumer is more information-driven than ever, Eagle said.
“Nutrition and value are top of mind. Recipes, serving suggestions and videos are available on our packaging and our website,” he said.
The company drives customers to its website via QR codes on packaging.
Retail customers are interested in recipes, nutritional information, market conditions, updates and forecasts, and social media posts, Gutierrez said.
“We love to educate our customers about our products,” she said. “We share weekly the production outlook from all our core items on both coasts.”
The company provides information with customers through its website, social media and flyers.
“We work hard every day to innovate and give our customers the best experience and content,” Gutierrez said.
Giant stores merchandise asparagus upright with fresh water, in high-traffic refrigerated endcaps and in the fresh produce wall. The company offers promotions on asparagus throughout the year, especially during key selling seasons and holidays.
“We promote for our seven-day ad week and then add an additional savings for three-day sales stretching the weekend,” McCawley said. “Weekend sales with deeper discounts generate excitement for shoppers and allows us to move volume.”
TURNING TO SOCIAL MEDIA
Crystal Valley also encourages retailers to work with influencers and bloggers.
“Influencers can help give consumers new and creative recipe ideas,” Valdes said. “Americans are becoming more adventurous with their fresh produce choices and are more open to trying some of these new items they might have read about or seen on social media.”
Most importantly, retailers should know what information consumers are looking for, which could be recipe ideas, cooking techniques and serving suggestions, and further details might include the nutritional value of asparagus or guidance on selecting, storing and preparing it, Valdes said.
Crystal Valley uses its own social media platforms that support in-store sales. These sites highlights the benefits of asparagus, preparation techniques and recipes.
Southern Specialties posts interesting facts about asparagus, recipes, preparation tips and “mouthwatering photos” on social platforms, Eagle said.
Harvest Sensations uses social media largely to provide seasonal information on how the crop is coming along, with harvest dates and projections on crop size and percentages of jumbo to standard.