Evaluation of a Perennial Vegetable, Asparagus, as a New Commercial Crop for Hawaiian Farmers
1. Establish appropriate irrigation and fertilizer practices for asparagus.
2. Determine plant density for viable commercial asparagus production in Hawaii.
3. Provide least toxic management of insect and mite pests, diseases, parasitic nematodes, and weeds.
4. Determine the cost of production, number of harvests per year, yield per acre and profitability.
5. Disseminate the information gathered from the project to growers through field days, publications, and seminars.
Asparagus seeds for the project were planted in flats to germinate and then transplanted to the field. The field plots were covered with polyethylene mulch and drip irrigated. Fertilizer was applied through the irrigation system. The ferns were allowed to grow for one year before the first harvest took place from December 15-22, 1998. It was a short harvest period with a relatively small yield. The ferns were then allowed to regrow, and subsequent harvests occurred at about six-month intervals. Four harvests have now been completed, and the yield results are attached. The two summer harvests were larger than the winter harvest. However, the higher prices in winter partially offset the lower yields. It is clear that asparagus is a sustainable crop for Hawaii and that the growing methods are compatible with farming systems of the local growers.
Since this project was limited in size, it is difficult to assess the actual production costs and eventual profitability. The cooperating farmer has increased his asparagus acreage from the original half-acre to over four acres and is preparing to plant another 40 acres. He is convinced that the crop will be profitable as soon as he can find competent workers as needed. As a result of the information disseminated to local growers, a number of them are interested in planting asparagus and forming a cooperative marketing agreement. There are also at least three asparagus farms on other Hawaiian islands. It is clear that an expanding local market is available, and buyers are learning to prefer the fresh local asparagus over imported. Many hotels, restaurants and supermarkets in Honolulu have also expressed an interest in the local product. The growers now need marketing assistance. They are not yet able to supply large supermarket chains on a continual basis, but this is an eventual goal. For now they are hoping to develop a local market with some restaurants that are known to demand top quality.
Potential Benefits or Impacts on Agriculture
Many agricultural workers in Hawaii that previously worked for the sugarcane and pineapple companies are no longer employed with them since these large plantations have significantly reduced their acreage. Some of these workers have turned to small farming operations and need information and assistance in developing new crops and markets for their produce. This project was undertaken to educate and inform Hawaiian farmers about asparagus, which has great potential as a profitable alternative crop for Hawaii. Not only can it fill a local market that is now supplied by imported asparagus, it is a low maintenance, sustainable crop with little need of pesticides that provides good soil erosion control. The extensive root mass that develops keeps soil in place and does not require plowing or replanting. Once planted, the asparagus plot remains productive for about 15 years. In Hawaii, unlike temperate regions, harvests can be scheduled at any time of year when supply is low and prices are high.
Farmer Adoption and Direct Impact
The SARE asparagus project is one-half acre in size. The cooperating farmer was satisfied with asparagus production and has decided to expand his acreage. He now has over four acres in production with 40 more acres scheduled to be planted over the next few months. Since the SARE project was started, other Hawaiian farmers have planted asparagus and the crop acreage is still expanding. A large farm of 25 to 30 acres has been started on the island of Kauai. Many of the farmers that visited the SARE project field day in August 1998 and the Agriculture Day in April 1999 expressed an interest in the crop. Some added asparagus to small home gardens for sale in farmer’s markets and some had larger commercial farms.
Reactions from Farmers
Farmers at field days or other project events asked many detailed questions about growing asparagus. I have also received a number of phone calls from small farmers who had heard of the project by word of mouth and had specific questions regarding fertilizer rates, irrigation, and disease control.
This project began as a small demonstration field. It succeeded very well in promoting asparagus as a new crop for Hawaii, and the acreage of this crop continues to increase. Thanks to generous media coverage, Hawaiian consumers have also become interested in obtaining the fresh, locally grown spears. It also appears that Honolulu hotels and restaurants will be interested in a continuing supply of top quality asparagus. It is not yet clear which spear sizes will be the most in demand and what the best marketing strategy will be. Eventually, it will most likely be advantageous for the farmers to form a cooperative to negotiate the best prices and to assure consumers of a continual supply of fresh spears.
The Hawaiian asparagus farmers now need research and education to help them market their asparagus. The local market appears to be available, but untapped, or rather is currently being supplied from the mainland U.S. It is not known how large the local market will be, which size spears will be most in demand, how prices will vary during different seasons or which market sectors will be the most profitable to supply. It is possible that eventually production could expand sufficiently to export to foreign markets, especially Japan.
This summary was prepared by the project coordinator for the 2000 reporting cycle.