Asparagus grows all over in the world in temperate areas, including most of the continental U.S. It’s a perennial crop that starts producing when spring arrives, pushing up spears when the soil starts to warm (and the ground thaws, in places with cold winters). Once summer arrives, the spears get tough and chewy, and the season ends. Historically it was only available for a few months in any given area, during a time when there was no other fresh produce. It was a spring dietary staple, and people ate tons of it for a short time, and then not again for the rest of the year.
Farmers have grown lots of asparagus in California since the 1860s, especially in and around the Sacramento River Delta region, where abundant winter rains provided the majority of the water the crop needed. With our early spring weather, California’s asparagus season has always been the earliest in the U.S. and farmers here began expanding production and shipping the crop to other states as soon as coal-powered train-transport became available.
So you could say California pioneered the use of fossil fuels to extend the asparagus season — as well as the season for other fresh produce — and that trend has only grown since.
But weather is not the only limiting factor in growing asparagus. Now as 100 years ago, the crop is picked by hand, every day or two, one spear at a time. There are no asparagus combines. It turns out the best tool to reduce the cost of harvesting it is the same one used to extend the season: airplanes.
Most of the world’s asparagus is now grown in places where harvest labor is valued in cents per hour rather than dollars, such as Peru. This is why the vegetable often costs less when it is out-of-season in California (or anywhere in the U.S.) despite having been flown halfway around the world. Most of the price a consumer pays is for the shipping and thus, for fossil fuels and by default, for climate change.
(As an aside: Peruvian asparagus is both a culprit in and a victim of climate change. Mostly grown in a desert where no rain falls, the crop is irrigated with water from melting glaciers that is currently abundant thanks to climate change, but which everyone agrees will run out in a decade or two at the most. )
Thus, year-round asparagus is a perfect example of the climate-change feedback loop we’re in. Worldwide, we grow our food in the places where it’s easiest and cheapest to grow them, regardless of the amount of carbon pollution it causes to get it to the end consumers. In economics, this is known as an externalized cost. California no longer grows enough asparagus even to meet local demand during the season, and many former asparagus fields are now planted in almonds and other crops grown for export.
I don’t have the answers on how we can slow down or reverse climate change. But I think it’s safe to say that having asparagus year-round is not worth the environmental cost.