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Asparagus Signals The Beginning Of Spring!

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Images of tall, tight bunches of purple-tinged, green and white asparagus in the grocery store signal the arrival of spring.  I love grilling, steaming and adding asparagus to spring dishes but I had never seen an asparagus field before.  When I think of a row crop I think of nice straight lines.  Asparagus spears break that rule as they shoot straight up out of the ground in random places from a new “eye” on the crown.  If you drive by an asparagus field you might think the field is full of weeds until you take a closer look.  Asparagus crowns, the root mass and buds, are planted densely on the fields.  New hybrid varieties can produce for a few weeks after a year in the ground and older varieties may take up to 3 years to produce. Once the plant is established it grows every year and can produce for 10 years or longer. The stalks only turn green when they are exposed to the sun and develop chlorophyll.  White asparagus is covered with mounds of dirt so they are never exposed to the sun and is said to have a milder flavor than green asparagus.  As the weather warms, a single asparagus spear can grow anywhere from 6 to 10 inches in a single day. 

Asparagus starting to pop out of the ground

The field workers tediously cut asparagus spears by hand with a special forked knife, laying them at the end of the rows to be picked up later.  Once the asparagus are done being harvested for the season they go to fern, the tips turn feathery, which allows the plants to transfer carbohydrates and energy to the roots by photosynthesis and to store nutrients to make next year’s crop sweeter and richer tasting.

Rows of asparagus at Coastal View Produce in Salinas

The height of the season in California runs from March to June.  California asparagus is mainly grown at the confluence of California’s two greatest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, in the rich peat of the delta lands an hour south of Sacramento and in the Salinas Valley about 2 hours south of San Francisco. California produces over 70 percent of the nation’s fresh market asparagus.

Asparagus gone to fern. www.vegetablegardener.com

Coastal View Produce a 3rd generation Violini family farm located in Gonzales, CA in the heart of the Salinas Valley has been growing high-quality organic asparagus for almost 40 years.  Brian Violini’s Grandfather was a Swiss immigrant who started a new life in the fertile Salinas Valley.  “I can remember being 10 years old and pulling weeds and moving sprinklers for my grandfather,” says Brian Violini, who now runs Coastal View Produce with his brother. “We’ve had this farm for three generations. My grandfather came over from Switzerland. He started with a dairy, then moved into farming. My dad and my uncle ran the farm after him, and now it’s me and my brother. Farming, it’s all we know.”

With consumer demand for organic food continuing to grow, Coastal View sees farming organically as both a competitive market decision and a way to promote a healthy ecosystem on the farm for generations to come. “The main thing we’re known for is asparagus,” says Violini. “We started with organic asparagus when I was in high school.” Violini attributes the consistent high quality of his crop to the mild Salinas weather in the winter and spring. “It’s not too hot, not too cold—it stays around 65–75 degrees. We used to plant in sandy soil, but now we’ve got most of the crop in a heavier clay soil, and it does just fine.”

The size of the spears comes from the age of the plant and is a personal preference. The youngest plants produce the skinny stalks. The thicker spears from older plants are said to be more succulent because they contain higher levels of carbohydrates. You decide, but make sure to look for blemish free asparagus with tightly closed tips and avoid wilted looking stalks. Try to eat them as soon as you buy them but you can store them upright in the refrigerator in a dish of water or wrap a damp towel over the ends and store in a plastic bag.

When you’re ready to eat them, snap or cut off the white portion of the butt end of the asparagus. They’re perfect coated with olive oil and roasted, which leaves them firmer, nuttier and sweeter than steaming.  Asparagus is high vitamin C and K and folic acid and contain less than 50 calories per 6 oz serving.  Click here for more recipes.

If you missed An Organic Conversation “Moving Past The Lawn: Environmental Landscaping” on Saturday March 24th Earl spoke about asparagus on the “What’s In Season” segment. Download it here

Also check out California’s largest asparagus festival in Stockton on April 27th-29th


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