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Warm weather a headache for Mich. asparagus farms

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Asparagus is rising from the ground because of Michigan's extraordinarily warm weather, a condition that could eventually ruin the crop due to a lack of labor and inevitable frost.

Asparagus is a spring crop, especially in Oceana and Mason counties in the northwestern Lower Peninsula, but not this early. Though temperatures topped 80 degrees last week, lows in the next few days could drop to 32 or lower. A freeze watch was posted Sunday by the National Weather Service.

"I've never seen a spring like this — never," Thomas Oomen of Oomen Farms told The Muskegon Chronicle. "I've been in agriculture my whole life. It just creates a whole bunch of problems. If it freezes, the crop will just kind of go away. If the help isn't here, we'll have to mow the field off and start over. There is just another level of stress in this right now."

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Grower Mike Van Agtmael believes 50 of his 80 acres of asparagus could be at risk.

"Everyone is extremely nervous," he said.

Migrant workers hand-pick virtually all of Michigan's asparagus, going row by row while riding in a cart. But the workers are elsewhere in the United States at this time of year, and typically don't make it to Michigan's fruit-and-vegetable belt until late April or May.

"They have kids in school and a change in plans isn't in the norm for them. That's their life," Oomen said.

Norm Myers, an educator with the Cooperative Extension Service, said a grower in Belding, northeast of Grand Rapids, already has 5 percent of his crop poking through the ground.

"The concern is that the earlier that it comes up the more likely it is going to frost," Myers said. "That's the ugly side of this warm weather."

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