Winter has finally left New Hampshire, and locavores can get their hands on a spring favorite.
“This is the slowest year for asparagus I can remember,” says John Forti, Curator of Historical Landscapes at Strawbery Banke. He's standing in a corner of the museum's reconstructed World War II Victory Garden, looking at a bare patch of soil where the asparagus still isn't up.
Forti really wants some asparagus.
"When you break off that fresh spear of asparagus, it has every bit of vitality that was stored in the ground over winter,” he says longingly.
For millennia, perennial crops like asparagus have been important as a reliable food source at the beginning of spring. But this year winter lingered, putting everything a couple of weeks behind schedule.
For agriculture overall, that's not necessarily a bad thing, says Becky Sideman, Vegetable and Small Fruits Specialist at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. “For a lot of crops, for example our fruit crops, when they flower too early and they're ahead of schedule, they're sensitive to early season frosts,” she explains. “Being behind schedule means they're probably less likely to get hit with those early season frosts.”
As for asparagus, Sideman says any delay feels too long. But she notes there aren't many farmers around who are willing to invest in a crop that comes before a lot of people are thinking local vegetables.
There's also the space issue, and the fact it takes three years for an asparagus root system, or crown, to produce harvestable stalks.
At Coppal House Farm in Lee, John Hutton says the whole thing can be nerve-wracking. “You have this bare patch of ground, and it really drives you nuts but you go out and you spread a light cover of manure on that and you lightly disk it, and you're like, 'I've just run over a very valuable crop with a very heavy piece of equipment. Did I kill it?'”
Still, Hutton devoted one of the best quarter-acres of this seventy-eight acre farm, struggled to keep out the chickens, and now...
“Here we are in our third year and we're looking down the rows saying, 'Yeah this doesn't look too bad.'”
As for the timing, earlier than most of the go-to farmer's market vegetables, that's why Hutton wanted to grow asparagus in the first place. “People walk by and they look at it,” he says, “they look away and then they do that double-take because they're like –” he gasps, “– 'they have asparagus!'”
It's a very welcome sign of spring, and a tasty payoff for the long wait.