Of all the crops we grow, asparagus is one of the least predictable and most temperamental. For the centuries that it has been grown, this has made it a difficult and risky crop to plant. And yet up until twenty years ago, the incentive was huge. Because asparagus was always the first fresh vegetable to be harvested each spring, and had a relatively short season, the demand was guaranteed. And the first crops to market received high prices.
Asparagus is a perennial plant that grows every year in the same spot. Sunny days in late winter or early spring warm the soil, which causes the roots to wake up and start pushing spears. Warm weather speeds up their growth, requiring a more frequent harvest. Cold, wet weather slows the grow and thus the production of spears. Frost or freezing temperatures destroys any spears that have emerged from the ground.
In the past, farmers went to great lengths to encourage their asparagus to emerge from the ground as quickly as possible. Some would actually use a gravel or rock mulch in the asparagus beds. Others would cover the roots with a “cloche”, a large glass jug with the bottom cut off. The warmer the soil, the quicker the roots would begin making spears. The same farmers might have another asparagus field planted in the shade of large trees, which would slow the warming of the soil and thus extend their season into the summer.
Fast forward to 2019, and asparagus is planted and harvested all over the world, and available in the supermarket 24/7/365. It is still a popular and versatile vegetable, but outside of locavore communities, it has lost the buzz that surrounded it for hundreds of years.
No matter where asparagus is grown, though, you can never be exactly sure when your harvest will begin. At Terra Firma, we have harvested asparagus as early as mid-January some years, although it’s more common for us to start sometime in February. Starting harvest as late as we did this year — March 11 — has only happened a few times that we can remember.
In a spring like this one, asparagus is a critical crop for us as CSA farmers. The near-constant rain has made planting new crops difficult; the asparagus is already in the ground. All we had to do was wait for it, and it finally arrived on Monday.
But even once the asparagus has started growing, we never know exactly how much we’re going to get on a given day. We have to pick it and then trim it before weighing it to get the count. It was almost the end of the day on Monday when we finally determined we had enough to put in the Medium and Large boxes — but not the Small.
With several days of warm weather in the forecast, we are reasonably certain the spears will start growing more quickly and we’ll have enough for everyone next week.