Warmer weather brings asparagus to market

Apr. 20, 2013 @ 11:17 AM

Every spring, as the weather starts to warm up, little bunches of asparagus start showing up at farmers’ markets. In the past couple of weeks, asparagus has started making its way to markets across the Triangle.

For lots of vegetables, it is easy to imagine what it looks like while it is growing. Beets and carrots are roots and grow under ground. Tomatoes and peppers grow on bushes. Peaches and apples grow on trees. Have you ever wondered what asparagus looks like while it is growing? Well, asparagus spears shoot up out of the ground! The tender, young shoots are harvested by cutting or snapping them at ground level.

On any farm, asparagus is a long-term investment. Farmers plant asparagus “crowns” (crowns are the root system) in their fields and then let them take root for at least two years. During this time, the crowns grow extensive root systems and put up a few small spears that farmers don’t cut. Farmers are then able to start harvesting the spears in the third year. This wait pays off because once established the crowns will provide an asparagus crop for up to 20 years.

This year, the asparagus harvest started a little bit later than in past years. “Asparagus doesn’t start growing until the ground temperature reaches 50 degrees” says Sara Broadwell, owner of Catbriar Farm and the Durham Farmers’ Market’s “asparagus lady”. The weeks of cold weather in late March and into early April kept the ground from warming up to the proper aspragus-growing temperatures. But, the past two weeks of warm have spring-like weather have gotten it growing.

One of the things that makes asparagus so special is that it has a short growing season.  The season lasts only five or six weeks every spring.  Asparagus is at its best when it is super fresh. Locally grown asparagus doesn’t spend days in transit on refrigerated trucks like most grocery store asparagus.  Asparagus grown on farms in the area is available to the consumer within a day or two of harvest and it is crisp, flavorful and fresh.

Tom Hurtgen is the owner of Hurtgen Meadows Farm in Hillsborough and grows asparagus on his small family farm. He tells me he harvests his asparagus at least once a day, sometimes twice.

I asked him his favorite way to eat asparagus in the spring. His response, “Raw and straight out of the field, as soon it is picked!”

Erin Kauffman is market manager of the Durham Farmers’ Market.