Year-round sunshine, sophisticated irrigation systems and United St,ates trade preferences have helped Peru become the world's biggest exporter of asparagus.
The Andean nation bounced back from an economic-crisis-induced slump with asparagus export totals of $480.3 million in 2011, up from $395 million in 2009 and $431 million in 2010.
William Arteaga, head of agriculture and agro-industries at PromPeru, says the industry is expecting modest growth in 2012, despite the worrying economic outlook in Europe--Peru's second-biggest market, after the United States.
Arteaga says the development of new Asian markets is key to further growth prospects, as big exporters such as Camposol, Danper Trujillo, Sociedad Agricola Vim and Complejo Agroindustrial Beta already are fighting hard for existing market share.
Japan is Peru's most promising Asian market, buying $9 million worth of asparagus in 2011, up 58 percent from its 2010 orders.
Almost half of Peru's asparagus exports went to the United States in 2011. Peru has had a stronghold on the U.S. market since the 1990s, when the U.S. government began subsidizing the crop in an attempt to discourage Peruvian farmers from growing coca, the base ingredient for cocaine.
Peruvian growers have flourished in the arid desert south of Lima, using drip-feed irrigation to bring the sands to life, even as U.S. growers complain that their government's trade preferences have hobbled their industry.
European markets such as Spain (14 percent), the Netherlands (10 percent), France (9 percent) and Great Britain (5 percent) import most of the other half of the Peruvian asparagus crop.
Preserved asparagus is especially vulnerable to the European economic downturn, as Spain and France are among its biggest buyers. The 2008 global financial crisis hit the preserved sector harder than fresh or frozen asparagus, with exports slumping from $178 million in 2008 to $112 million in 2009 and $103 million in 2010.
Exports of fresh or refrigerated asparagus, the bulk of the industry, now exceed pre-2008 levels after taking their biggest hit in 2009.
Arteaga says the rapid recovery of fresh asparagus in the United States highlights big differences among markets in responding to an economic crisis.
"The Americans keep on eating while the Europeans restrict. Nothing is written in stone," he says.
"In an age of crisis, sales of products that are considered to be luxuries or superfluous are expected to drop off, and prices are lowered. But in the midst of the 2009 crisis, the value of asparagus rose in the U.S.," Arteaga says. "Fresh succeeds because people who go to certain supermarkets and also restaurants--fine cuisine--still buy."
Exports of frozen asparagus also recovered well in 2011, jumping 64 percent from 2010 levels, to $47.6 million. The major constraint on growth in this sector is a lack of the capacity to freeze asparagus products in Peru before shipping them.