Spring Equinox was Monday, and just in time we are officially starting asparagus season. We had a bit of a false start this year, but it’s here now for real, and should continue through April and well into May.
In temperate areas all over the world, asparagus is the first vegetable up out of the ground. That’s because unlike most other spring vegetables, it’s a perennial. So no matter whether it’s been a cold snowy winter or a long wet one, the roots are going to wake up when the soil starts to warm. And the spears will begin to push out of the ground.
Generally speaking, one asparagus plant (or crown, as they are called) will produce one or maybe two shoots per day. It takes anywhere from one to five days for each spear to reach its full size — they grow more slowly when its cold and more quickly when it’s warm. And temperatures below 32 will destroy any spears that are above ground, knocking back the harvest by a week or longer.
Asparagus is a textbook case of why it’s hard to mechanize vegetable harvest. Pickers must accurately identify the correct sized spears, and carefully harvest them without damaging the smaller spears around them. There are very few ways to speed up harvest — it takes a mile of walking to pick a hundred pounds of spears.
California used to produce a huge amount of asparagus, especially in the Delta region, and ship it all over the U.S. But labor costs and availability along with warmer weather south of the border have given Mexico and other Latin American countries an advantage. Very little asparagus is still grown in California, and most of that is consumed locally. And even then, it has been a struggle for growers to match the price of imported product.
Over the years, we have grown asparagus solely for our CSA subscribers. It also provides extra income for our employees during a time of year in which can be pretty lean. However, we have struggled with soil-born disease that kills the roots. Most recently we have been sourcing asparagus for our boxes from our neighbors Jim and Deborah Durst in next door Esparto.
We planted a new asparagus field in 2015 at a new location, but it is still young and so most of the crop in your boxes this year will come once again from the Dursts. If all goes well with that field, it should come into full production next year.
For many people, asparagus has become a vegetable that is available year-round from some distant land. But eating local asparagus is still a legitimate and time-honored way of celebrating the arrival of Spring, and we hope that you will enjoy the quality difference of freshly harvested, locally and seasonally grown spears.