Saturday, May 15, 2010

Asparagus, at a glance

So after a few days on the farm, I'm exhausted but forcing myself to put 'pen to paper,' as it were, and record some of my impressions of my first days.

A lot has happened, from the flight back to Toronto to the car ride to the farm, and my new life in the bunkhouse here. I'll tell you more about these some other time, but for now I'll write a bit about an odd-looking green vegetable.

Let me tell you a little about asparagus, which those less ignorant than I am probably already know. The spears that you buy grow right out of the ground; you're actually eating the young stalk of a larger plant. Asparagus is one of those plants that make me wonder just how it was domesticated. I'd really like to meet the caveperson who went around eating plant stalks until they decided that asparagus would be the right one to farm.

Asparagus is harvested by cutting the stalk off at the ground once it reaches a certain height. It is then put into crates and sent to be processed. The processing consists of sorting them into grades based on length: short ones get sent for pickling, longer ones become the bunches that are sold in supermarkets.

The spears can be harvested every few days when it is hot. Those of you in Toronto will have noticed that the last few days have been anything but, meaning less work for us. However, come late May and early June, the week will be an unceasing cycle of harvest and pack, harvest and pack.

I am told that sometimes, you can start in the morning, finish packing the asparagus you harvested the day before, and go back to harvest that very afternoon.

Once the short spears have been weeded out, the real fun begins. Five or six guys work an assembly line, where asparagus is put on a conveyor belt and passes through a rotating blade that cuts them all to the same size. The asparagus, now uniformly eight and a half inches, is now packed into 1-lb. bunches.

These bunches are packed into boxes with special holes for washing and a paper pad at the bottom. You wash the asparagus when it's already in the boxes, and the water soaks into the paper pad which acts as a sort of surrogate soil, providing water to the asparagus so that it continues to live a hydroponic life until it reaches the store shelves. Thanks, science!

Currently the Ontario Asparagus Drought is entering week two, and showing no signs of abating for the next couple of days at least. Supermarket shelves are bare! Crowds are panicking in the street! (the first one is true, at least. An unscientific survey of the Loblaws I was just at revealed no asparagus on the produce shelves)

While the waiting has been going on, we have weeded strawberries, planted strawberries, irrigated strawberries, shovelled manure onto a rhubarb patch, and so on until we run out of work. We're currently on half-days until the sun comes back out, which kind of blows (although it allows more time for blog writing, which is awesome!)

There's a lot to tell about farm life, and I'm sure that I'll tell you all more in the coming weeks. For now, think of asparagus and exhort the sun gods to radiate their rays of solar goodness or I'll be out of a job!


  1. Awesome, Adam. We thank the sun god for slowing down asparagus growth so you have more time to blog. Tim has the correct identification of the parts we eat. It turns out that the spears are inflorescences in the making. I had also thought that they were young shoots. Maybe I have been away from botany too long! Take care and feed us more blog.


  2. yup, inflorescences. the from-one-year-to-the-next part of the plant lives underground where it slowly branches and makes roots. each branch sends up these inflorescence spears not only as an ante in the reproduction game, but also in order to photosynthesize, storing all the sugar produced in this way in the underground stems. in fact this way of life (live underground, use the temporary, above-ground scaffolding on which your reproductive structures are hung for photosynthesis) is quite common, e.g. on the forest floor (many spring wildflowers that are only conspicuous when they flower, often before the trees above them are fully leafed out). alternatively, in mediterranean climates (hot dry summer), the above ground parts may be too expensive to use only for a single growing season, and so they persist from year to year, doing both photosynthesis and flowering from one year to the next. but the overall organization above- and below-ground is the same.


  3. Finally catching up on people's blogs! James and I were just talking last night about how asparagus grows so it was great to stumble onto this post :)