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FARMING

Chilly weather leads to soaring asparagus prices in Germany

Every year the Germans seem to be driven wild by an unlikely hero: white asparagus. But this year, the cold and damp spring means customers have had to fork out a bit more to get their hands on some stalks of this ‘edible ivory’.

Chilly weather leads to soaring asparagus prices in Germany
A Spargel farmer hands a batch to a customer in Bickenbach, Hesse. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

It is now more than halfway through Germany’s famous asparagus season, which traditionally ends on June 24th, also known as Spargelsilvester (Asparagus New Year). However, poor weather means this year’s harvest has already been compromised.

The main reason for the low yield was the cold start to the year. “When there is no sun, the ground doesn’t warm up” explained Simon Schumacher, the spokesperson for the Asparagus and Strawberry Farmers’ Association of Southern Germany.

According to Franziska Rintisch, the head of the Franconian Union of Asparagus Producers,  “if we didn’t have polytunnels, there would be almost no asparagus yield”. 

Without warm earth, the asparagus simply will not grow. At the halfway point of the season, this means supply of Germany’s precious crop is limited and prices are on the rise. 

At the moment, a kilogram of white asparagus will cost you between €12 and €14 in the local supermarket. For the good stuff, or Sonntagsspargel, Schumacher says you’ll be down an additional €2 or €3 per kilo. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Spargelzeit

Those who can live with imperfect asparagus, meaning heads that are broken or not perfectly white, can get their hands on it for a much lower price, especially from direct sellers. 

There is still about a month to go until Spargelsilvester on June 24th, when the season traditionally comes to an end. Up until now, the majority of growers have not been too disappointed with how the season has played out. 

READ ALSO: Only in Germany: McDonald’s begins offering ‘Spargel Burger’

The weather has been somewhat of a double-edged sword. “It feels as if we’re in the middle of the fifth wave of cold weather” complained Fred Eickhorst of the Association of Asparagus and Berry Growers of Lower Saxony. The chilly start to the year actually meant that the season began later than normal, which Eickhorst says explains the low yield up until now. 

“The amount is not what we would wish for, but the higher market price makes up for it”. 

Growers around the country echo these views. “We are content,” said Petra Högl of the Abensberg Association of Growers of High Quality Asparagus. 

Anke Knaup of the Lippe Society of Asparagus Growers even went as far to say that she is “very content”. 

A basket of Spargel in Kutzleben, Thuringia marked the start of this year’s season on April 14th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Martin Schutt

Home-cooked Spargel

She notes a further advantage of the weather: as people are not having as many barbecues, more asparagus is being cooked at home. All in all, the demand has been relatively high, although the hospitality industry has played a smaller role this year. 

In 2020, growers harvested 117,563 tons of white asparagus, less than in the four years before that. During the pandemic, many farmers struggled to recruit enough pickers to help with the spring harvest, as many of these workers would normally come from abroad. This has been less of an issue in 2021, suggest the growers’ unions. 

The effort made by seasonal workers was certainly made greater by Covid-19 hygiene measures. According to Peter Strobl of the Southern Bavarian Association of Asparagus Growers, the measures meant that farmers encountered around €1,000 in extra costs per seasonal worker. 

The number of asparagus farms has been sinking year on year, with 1,598 now operating. In total, white asparagus is grown on almost 25,900 hectares across the country. 

Farmers differentiate late varieties of asparagus from the earlier crop, which can be harvested from the end of March until May. Harvest of the late varieties generally begins towards the end of May. 

The switch from early to late varieties can be really great for consumers, as at this point the harvest will often overlap, meaning the supply is much higher and the price of asparagus goes down. 

The slow growth this year may actually be a good thing. “It means the asparagus can grow evenly” says Schumacher, meaning the taste is better.  

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FARMING

WTO rules US tariffs on Spanish olives breach rules

A US decision to slap steep import duties on Spanish olives over claims they benefited from subsidies constituted a violation of international trade rules, the World Trade Organisation ruled Friday.

WTO rules US tariffs on Spanish olives breach rules
Farmers had just begun harvesting olives in southern Spain when former US President Donald Trump soured the mood with the tariffs' announcement. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

Former US president Donald Trump’s administration slapped extra tariffs on Spain’s iconic agricultural export in 2018, considering their olives were subsidised and being dumped on the US market at prices below their real value.

The combined rates of the anti-subsidy and anti-dumping duties go as high as 44 percent.

The European Commission, which handles trade policy for the 27 EU states, said the move was unacceptable and turned to the WTO, where a panel of experts was appointed to examine the case.

In Friday’s ruling, the WTO panel agreed with the EU’s argument that the anti-subsidy duties were illegal.

But it did not support its stance that the US anti-dumping duties violated international trade rules.

The panel said it “recommended that the United States bring its measures into conformity with its obligations”.

EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis hailed the ruling, pointing out that the US duties “severely hit Spanish olive producers.”

Demonstrators take part in a 2019 protest in Madrid, called by the olive sector
Demonstrators take part in a 2019 protest in Madrid called by the olive sector to denounce low prices of olive oil and the 25 percent tariff that Spanish olives and olive oil faced in the United States. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)
 

“We now expect the US to take the appropriate steps to implement the WTO ruling, so that exports of ripe olives from Spain to the US can resume under normal conditions,” he said.

The European Commission charges that Spain’s exports of ripe olives to the United States, which previously raked in €67 million ($75.6 million) annually, have shrunk by nearly 60 percent since the duties were imposed.

The office of the US Trade Representative in Washington did not immediately comment on the ruling.

According to WTO rules, the parties have 60 days to file for an appeal.

If the United States does file an appeal though, it would basically amount to a veto of the ruling.

That is because the WTO Appellate Body — also known as the supreme court of world trade — stopped functioning in late 2019 after Washington blocked the appointment of new judges.

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