Across the Yakima Valley, farmers say the same thing: It's hard to perfect the art of cutting asparagus, and the workers who return year after year are an invaluable resource. Asparagus season started in mid-April and will run through mid- to late June.

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YAKIMA — It’s backbreaking work: Bending at the waist every two or three feet to cut the stalks just below the surface of the soil, then dropping the vegetables into a plastic box that hangs from a belt around the hips and grows heavier with each handful.

But for asparagus cutters in the Yakima Valley, it’s just another day in the field.

“It’s the hardest, but it’s the most fun,” said Leonor Cruz, who has cut asparagus at Monte Schilperoort’s farm in Harrah, Yakima County, for 18 years and will pick cherries and apples this summer. “I like working in the fresh air better than in the packing houses.”

Cruz is one of the longest-working cutters at Schilperoort’s farm. And across the valley, farmers say the same: It’s hard to perfect the art of cutting asparagus, and the workers who return year after year are an invaluable resource.

“A good asparagus cutter’s the equivalent to a Ph.D.,” said Brian Haas, 75, owner of Haas Farms in Sunnyside, only half in jest. He started cutting asparagus on his uncle’s farm when he was 10 and has been involved in the business ever since, except for college and 10 years as an engineer.

“Asparagus cutting, like many of our agricultural jobs like thinning fruit, even picking fruit, is an art form,” Haas said. “It is a skilled job. If (the workers) don’t cut the asparagus right for me, they could ruin a field for me.”

Asparagus season started in mid-April and will run through mid- to late June. It’s a finicky crop, requiring temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees and plenty of sun to heat the soil for optimal growth.

And the cutters have to be careful to cut the stalk about an inch below ground level so the spear seals off properly and the asparagus crown below ground sends up more stalks throughout the season.

Packing houses want the spears to be 8 inches high, so the special asparagus-cutting knives also serve as measuring sticks, though seasoned cutters like Cruz don’t need to check to know they’ve cut the right length.

All of Schilperoort’s asparagus goes to Johnson Foods in Sunnyside to be pickled.

A special season

So far, this year is shaping up to be one of the best seasons in a decade, said Pablo Fonseca, a former cutter at Schilperoort’s and now the foreman.

“We haven’t lost any days due to freezing this year,” he said. For the past four years, he said, it was easy to lose a week’s worth of cutting to cold weather, which hurts not only the farm but the workers, who earn 24 cents per pound cut.

On a good day, after warm, sunny weather, an experienced cutter can fill 10 to 14 25-pound boxes in about six hours, earning $60 to $84.

Wind hasn’t been a problem this year, either; some years, gusts have blown so hard that the asparagus bent at 90-degree angles.

Some local farmers are starting to slowly expand their asparagus acreage after bottoming out with low prices in the past few years. Peruvian imports just about killed the U.S. market.

Fonseca says it could be that distributors or consumers are now finding that Peruvian asparagus doesn’t meet their standards.

“It’s not the same quality,” he said. High winds and sandy, arid landscapes in Peru make it so the asparagus arrives “beat up,” with sand ground into the stalks. “When you eat it, you feel the little tiny rocks in there.”

But some growers are still cautious about the market. Manuel Imperial, owner of Imperial’s Garden in Wapato, said demand at his fruit stand is up so he has planted slightly more asparagus.

But many farmers are doing the opposite.

“People that we know, a lot of them are pulling out,” compared with just a few entering the industry, he said. “Asparagus requires so many workers. I think that’s why a lot of the farmers are getting out of it; the labor is intense.”

Labor shortage

Some farms in the Tri-Cities and in the Lower Yakima Valley have stopped cutting this year due to lack of workers, some farmers report.

Fortunately, Schilperoort’s farm doesn’t have that problem. Fonseca said most of their workers come back every year and stay through the end of the season, unlike some farms whose workers jump ship to pick cherries before asparagus is finished.

For Cruz, it’s not hard to find a reason to stay.

She and her family moved to the valley from Mexico in 1994, and she and her husband have put in long hours to provide for their four kids.

“We work hard in order to bring them up, and to push them to want to study,” she said.

One of her sons is a nurse, her daughter is about to graduate from Heritage University, and her 20-year-old son cuts asparagus alongside her in the mornings before going to class at Yakima Valley Community College, where he hopes to go into nursing like his older brother. Cruz’s youngest son is also at Heritage.

She says she has tried to show them that working in the fields is a hard life.

“That way, they’ll be motivated to study, so they can have a better future than ours,” she said.