If you love fresh, local asparagus, you might want to start growing your own
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA
Elegant asparagus—often called the king of vegetables—has long been considered a sure sign of spring, but cultivation of the delicate green spears here in California has declined sharply due to labor costs and the huge amount of land required to grow it. Farmers’ market favorite HOG Farms stopped growing asparagus this year, but a few other growers are stepping up to fill the gap. And it is well worth seeking out locally grown, in-season asparagus—because the taste can’t be beat.
Asparagus, or “grass” as it’s called in the produce industry, is in the lily family. In order to have a continuous supply from January to June, it is grown in three main areas of California—the Sacramento River Delta, the San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast. Our local harvest takes place between March and June mainly in Monterey and San Benito counties.
Cultivated around the world for thousands of years, asparagus is very adaptable to various growing conditions, but takes several years to produce the thick stalks that people love. It can be grown from seed, but takes a year to grow a seedling into a crown that can be planted.
Once the crown is planted, it is another long wait—three years of weeding and tending to the crowns before they grow into the fat spears that are quickly snapped up at the spring farmers’ markets. These crowns produce high-quality harvests for another three to four seasons before they begin to decline. At any given time the grower must have half his land in an unproductive state, which is tough when land leases can be extremely costly in our neck of the woods. This is one reason acreage of asparagus in California has been declining steadily; currently there are about 10,000 acres in production, down from 40,000 in 2000.
Ray Franscioni of HOG Farms—which stands for Hollister Organically Grown—this year stopped growing the asparagus crop I have enjoyed and purchased for many years at the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets.
“California labor laws, regulations and restrictions make the cost of labor too high to make sense to grow asparagus here,” he explains. “Local growers are moving operations to Mexico where labor is 15– 20% of the crop cost and land is cheaper. We couldn’t compete with Mexico to grow the crop and we have no plans to farm down there. I love asparagus and I won’t mind paying 5 bucks a bunch at the store when I want some.”
HOG Farms currently grows 3,500 acres of row crops and 1,500 acres of wine grapes, and Franscioni is focusing on row crops that can be mechanized like spring mix or those that need only one person to run a machine. He says even the harvesting of head lettuce is very close to being completely mechanized as the lettuce heads are uniformly sized.
Asparagus spears, by contrast, must be harvested by hand and then hand-sorted into different sized bunches that are set precisely by the California Asparagus Commission. First fieldworkers cut them at the base of the stalk with a sharp knife and toss them into a basket strapped to their waist. The baskets are emptied into bins, which are taken to a packing shed where the asparagus are rinsed, trimmed, sorted by size and packed into neat bundles. Size depends on the age of the plant— the youngest are the thinnest.
As you can imagine, having a crop in the ground for three years before it is harvested requires a lot of expensive weeding, especially if the asparagus stalks are organic and herbicides aren’t used. Tractor and hand weeding take place while waiting for the “green rush” in year three. In the old days, salt was used as an herbicide because asparagus can tolerate it. But farmers quickly realized it meant ruining the soil for other crops. An ingenious couple in Maine received a grant to see if their chickens could greatly reduce the amount of weeds in their asparagus field without damaging the plants. e project was very successful in reducing weeds without ruining the spears—they suggested eight to 10 chickens per 1,000 square feet. e chickens also benefited the asparagus by foraging for beetles that cause crop loss! However, with the new food safety regulations it is doubtful this practice will actually be used in commercial production.
If you want to grow asparagus in your home garden, I highly recommend buying established one-year-old “crowns” and planting them in pots or raised beds. If not, the crowns will spread out and pop up all over the place, and you may not take care of them as well as if you have them contained and remember where they are planted. ey also don’t like soggy soil, which is harder to avoid when you plant them directly in the ground. Plant crowns in the spring and be sure to start with a thick layer of compost in the trench where you plant. Crowns should be planted 15 inches apart and covered with 2 inches of soil. As the stems grow, continue to fill the rest of the trench with soil, leaving only 3 to 4 inches of the stem, then add a 6-inch layer of mulch and water regularly. Try not to harvest young spears the first year, as they are providing food for the roots so they can make bigger spears in years to come, or else have a snacking section where growing full-sized spears is not the goal. Leave the fern-like foliage on the plant and cut it back once it turns brown in the fall. Side dress with compost in the fall and repeat the above for year two, and so on. When stalks are 6 inches tall and the width of a pencil or larger, they can be harvested. Be sure to harvest daily, as spears can grow 6 to 10 inches in one day if the conditions are ideal. They will continue to grow for a period of two to three weeks.
Third-generation Violini Farms has been growing asparagus for more than 45 years in Gonzales, which is ideal because the climate is so temperate. Both organic and conventional asparagus are grown and some is marketed under the label Coastal View Produce. Their fresh, crisp crop of organic grass can be found March through June at all of the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets except the downtown market, where L&J Farms out of Greenfield sells its organic crop.
Bounty of the Valley Farm of Greenfield sells L&J’s organic asparagus for it at the Old Monterey Farmers’ Market on Tuesdays and the Carmel market on Thursdays. Bounty of the Valley’s Matt Hayes began growing asparagus in 1986 but stopped in 2013: “You have to ‘touch’ asparagus 10 times before it gets onto the market tables; it is very labor intensive,” Hayes says.
“Having a crop in the ground for three years
before it is harvested requires a lot of
expensive weeding, especially if the asparagus
stalks are organic and herbicides aren’t used.”
HOW TO CHOOSE AND STORE ASPARAGUS
Look for blemish-free spears with tightly closed tips and rigid-looking stems; avoid wilted stalks. Cut off the ends and store them upright in cold water in the fridge if possible, or cut and wrap the ends with wet paper towels and place in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Cut the last few inches off the spears right before you cook them and for the best flavor, eat as soon as possible. The thick stems have more carbohydrates, therefore are sweeter when cooked. Thin versus fat asparagus is a personal preference, but both are tasty and full of fiber, vitamins C and K and folic acid as well as naturally low in calories.
TIPS FOR PREPARING ASPARAGUS
Roasting brings out a sweet, nutty flavor; simply coat with olive oil, salt and pepper, a little lemon zest and roast in the oven for 15 minutes. For salads, blanch then cut in bite-sized pieces. Or use a vegetable peeler to make thin strips of raw asparagus and use them in a salad or on top of a pizza. Pickled asparagus is also very good. Try it in risotto, like in the recipe provided here by Carmel Valley Ranch’s Tim Wood.
Jamie Collins is the owner of Serendipity Farms, which grows organic row crops in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties and distributes them through U-picks, farmers’ markets and a virtual farm stand, which can be found on Serendipity’s Virtual Farm Stand Facebook page.
Cooking with the Seasons
While growing up the youngest of three boys in the Hudson Valley, N.Y. hamlet of Stone Ridge, it was Tim Wood’s job to watch for and pick the tender asparagus tips after they began poking up through the hay the family had spread over its backyard crop the prior fall.
“It was a big deal. It’s still a big deal,” the executive chef at Carmel Valley Ranch’s Valley Kitchen says, referring to the anticipation of when the local asparagus and later, sweet corn, season would begin. To this day, asparagus and corn remain two of his favorite vegetables.
While many chefs only discover the myriad benefits of cooking with local, peak-of-season produce through culinary school, mentors or trial and error, eating with the seasons has always been Wood’s way of life. “I never realized that not everybody had that,” he says, referring to his family’s 15-by-20-foot asparagus plot, and the opportunity he had to eat “really well-executed fresh food” at his family’s table. “We’d only pick what we needed that night.”
Today, Wood and his culinary team are able to shave over their soups freshly picked purple asparagus grown in their own organic garden, and Wood is trying to grow a new row of asparagus in the property’s vineyards for recipes like the ones that accompany this story. But daily shipments from Hollister’s Swank Farms are key to ensuring that the vegetables he cooks with are fresh-picked earlier the same day.
Wood began cooking professionally at age 13 (yes, he fudged his age) at a resort that was a half-hour bike ride from his home, and went on to train at the Culinary Institute of America in nearby Hyde Park, thinking that cooking would be a good skill to pay the bills while he launched an acting career.
But Wood never became an actor and says that his philosophy of cooking—which he shares prodigiously as a volunteer chef at community fundraisers—comes back to simply making food that tastes good, and checking his ego so that his ingredients can capture the spotlight. “I don’t want to cover up the brilliance of the ingredient,” he says. “I want to put it on as the star of the show.” —Sarah Wood
LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON MARCH, APRIL, MAY
Apricots* • Avocados • Blackberries* • Cactus Pears* • Grapefruit** • Kumquats** • Lemons • Limes** • Mandarins** • Oranges • Pomelos** • Rhubarb** • Strawberries
Artichokes • Arugula • Asparagus • Beets • Bok Choy • Broccoli • Broccoli Raab • Brussels Sprouts • Burdock • Cabbage • Cardoons • Carrots • Cauliflower • Celeriac*** • Celery*** • Chard • Chicory • Collards • Cress • Dandelion • Endive • Fava Beans and Greens • Fennel • Garlic • Horseradish • Kale • Kohlrabi • Leeks • Mushrooms • Mustard Greens • Nettles • Onions • Orach • Parsnips • Peas** • Pea Shoots • Potatoes • Radishes • Rutabagas** • Shallots • Spinach • Sprouts • Squash • Sunchokes • Turnips
* May only ** March and April only ***April and May only
Abalone • Crab, Dungeness • Grenadier, Pacific • Halibut, California* • Lingcod, Pacific • Rock Cod, aka Snapper or Rockfish • Sablefish, aka Black Cod • Salmon, King • Sanddabs, Pacific • Seabass, White • Sole (Dover and Petrale) • Spot Prawns • Squid
All fish listed are rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and are found in abundance in local waters. See www.seafoodwatch.org for more information. *Halibut rated by the Marine Stewardship Council. Research assistance provided by Real Good Fish and Serendipity Farms.