This I would’ve never recognised. The beds during harvest season, yes. But asparagus plants in blossom, no. Definitely not. I would’ve probably defined them as some strange big fern with thin branches OR a bright green Christmas tree with veeeery thin branches. The bushes are a bit taller than myself. The thin feathery foliage find their way to the top. Small yellow chalks of flowers appear. Gerrit, the asparagus farmer, is walking in between the rows gliding his fingers through the leaves. “What are you looking for?” I ask. He explains the work that has to be done off-season.
Asparagus plants grow for seven year. That’s when the “The white gold” can be harvested. A couple of months back Igcham, one of the harvesters, showed me what to look for when harvesting asparagus spears. During the harvest season the asparagus fields are easy to recognise. The rows are protected by thick mounts of soil covered by black plastic.
Igcham moved to the Netherlands twenty years ago. The last seventeen years he works on the asparagus farm. He takes one of the black plastics and pulls it off the bed. With a nice accent he proudly explains that the plastic helps to keep the heat inside the beds. “It also prevents the spears from night frost.” He point to the beds in the distance: “We turned the plastic there. The soil got too warm.” The turned plastic leaves the white side up.
“It’s not easy to spot an asparagus spear for an untrained eye.” Igcham sticks his knife in the asparagus bed and pulls a perfect twenty centimeter asparagus from the soil. “The spear pushes up the soil, leaving little dents.” Every now and then I see the point of an asparagus sticking out of the soil. “Those are easy to spot, but we don’t want to harvest only those spears. We also harvest the ones that are stil below the soil. Otherwise we would have to check the beds even more often.” Harvesting asparagus is time consuming.
Igcham slowly investigates the beds. That is to say he pulls the plastic off the beds, sticks his knife in the soil every now and then and drags the plastic back. In an easy pace he checks the first row, before turning to the other side. Igcham knows exactly where to stick his knife. And after those two rows his little iron basket is half full.
Besides spotting asparagus spears, Igcham also teaches me that there is no difference between green and white asparagus. “A green asparagus is just a white one exposed to sunlight. Yes, they taste different. But they come from the same plant. Although from some asparagus species the white kind tastes better. And the other way around of course. When we harvest the white asparagus a bit too late and it gets exposed to the sun, it’s value decreases.”
Later that day I learn that there is a lot of difference in quality between asparagus. Age of the plant and the thickness, length and strength of the spears all play a part in value and pricing. The best looking fellows often gets sold to restaurants, because there the looks are more important. Anyways, I’m drifting off.
Back to Gerrit
Back to Gerrit and the asparagus plants. During harvest season he works more than fourteen hours a day. His wife takes off every year from her normal job to help at the farm. I only got to speak to him briefly. We stroll through the fields, who look so different than a couple of months earlier. “These are young plants. But every seven years the soil needs something different. I have a look at the soil and then we plant whatever is good for the land. After a couple of years we can use this land again. We still have to wait a while after planting the seeds before we can eat the asparagus though. It takes some years for the plants to set it.”
We continue to search the branches for beetles and flies. But I only have eyes for all the bumblebees, bees and wasps flying around the tiny flowers. A stroke of flowers is planted next to the fields, attracting ladybugs. A natural enemy of the beetles damaging plants. “We don’t like to use any pesticides. We try to get rid of the pest the natural ways. But sometimes we have no choice than to use some more effective methods. I keep a close eye on the branches, they should be alright!”
“Oh look! Here you can see the difference between a white and a green asparagus very clearly!” he points towards a row a couple of lines next to us.
The Dutch and asparagus
One of the best parts of following farmers and growers is to be so close to the produce. When I got home after visiting the farm the first time, I didn’t come home empty-handed. A whole bag of asparagus came home with me. Some top quality and some cut offs which I could use for soup. I grab a towel and soak it in water. I carefully place the spears on the towel and wrap it around them. The cuts I put in a big pan, today I am going to enjoy a fresh pot of soup!
Sings with “Fresh asparagus” emerge along roads and in vegetable stores on the third Thursday of April. Gerrit owns three stores, him and his team prep the asparagus to bring the vegetable directly to the public. No middleman. The spears are washed, divided into different groups by quality, peeled and packaged. Both restaurants as individuals come to his store to get the asparagus fresh from the land. And when the season ends on June 24th the season, it’s time to take care of the fields.
Interested in other Farmers and Growers I follow for this project? Check out the project page! I am currently in contact with loads more farmers and growers to also include in the project. It takes some time because I want to visit most the participants multiple times throughout the year. But a patient mind, can get pretty far!