In early spring, the first tips poke tentatively through the soil. And then it’s on: asparagus season, like a brief but relentless alien invasion, the spears shooting up so swiftly they need to be harvested each day. Miss the crucial window and they start to leaf out and toughen.
Massachusetts — particularly Western Mass — has a long history with this perennial crop, in season starting in May and ending in June (it’s on its way out now, farmers report). Hadley was once known as the Asparagus Capital of the World, and Hadley “grass’’ is still celebrated at the annual Asparagus Festival. But go to a Boston-area farmers’ market and you’re not likely to find any of it. Go to the supermarket, and the asparagus is from New Jersey, California, Mexico, Peru.
In an era when “local’’ is a food buzzword, why is local, and increasingly even domestic, asparagus so hard to come by? Behind its absence on the market is a story that touches on the realities of farming, immigration and labor, and the War on Drugs. What does asparagus have to do with cocaine? Read on.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to the New England Historical Society, Polish immigrants began arriving in the Pioneer Valley, drawn by work at the textile mills. They saved, they bought land, they farmed. From Czajkowski to Smiarowski to Waskiewicz, many of the big names in Hadley grass still reflect that heritage.
The region’s soil is particularly conducive to asparagus cultivation, says Ryan Voiland, owner and general manager of Red Fire Farm in Montague and Granby, where asparagus is among the crops.
It even has its own name. “Every type of soil has a classification, often named after the town where it was first measured and classified,’’ he says. “Hadley sandy loam is not only in Hadley; we have that soil type up and down the Connecticut River in abundance. It’s deep, well drained, and good for growing.’’ The crops went out by river and railroad, a delicacy for all to appreciate. (Along with the funny-smelling urine: “Sniffing out significant ‘Pee values’: genome wide association study of asparagus anosmia,’’ a ground-breaking study out of Harvard published in the BMJ in December 2016, proved that everyone experiences asparagus pee, just not everyone can smell it.)
But every story has a villain. Hadley grass’s was fusarium, a fungus that sounds even more dastardly when you call it by another name, root rot. In the 1970s, it devastated the local asparagus crops. (Today, newer, more-vigorous varieties, such as Millennium and Jersey Supreme, are better able to stand up to fusarium.) Other places picked up the slack — Stockton, Calif., and Oceana County, Mich., have also laid claim to the title of asparagus capital at one time or another. And although asparagus is still important in the Hadley area, that’s mostly where you have to go to get it.
It is worth it, by the way: I recently scored a bunch of Hadley asparagus at Allandale Farm in Brookline, and it was sweet, tender, and fresh, miles closer to my idea of what asparagus should be than the hoary imported stalks I’d found at the grocery store the week before.
That’s why, every spring, JJ Gonson, of Somerville event and catering company Cuisine en Locale, hops in her truck and makes the four-hour round trip to Boisvert Farm in Hadley. She drives down a small dirt road to a barn, where she buys crates of freshly picked and trimmed asparagus: “It’s sold not by the pound but the handful.’’ She buys 10 to 15 cases a year and brings it back home. Sometimes she sells to specialty markets and chefs, but local asparagus doesn’t appear on many restaurant menus, she says: It’s too expensive and the season too brief. Chefs “get fiddleheads from Washington and ramps from down south and asparagus from South America, and they pretend it’s spring.’’
“The reason you don’t see Valley asparagus in Boston is that your purveyors don’t want to pay the price for the locally grown asparagus, so they choose to buy the cheaper stuff,’’ confirms Tim Nourse of Nourse Farms in Whately. “But there’s only one of them that eats the best.’’
This year all of Gonson’s asparagus has gone to private clients. “People come by the kitchen to pick it up. There’s an envelope that says ‘asparagus money.’ I still have a few bunches left. You want some?’’
Of course, asparagus also grows closer to Boston. At Verrill Farm in Concord, it’s a yearly highlight, and it sells fast. “It’s nice to have an early crop that’s in high demand. We’ve sold out every day this season,’’ says farmer Steve Verrill. Last year, he says, there were only three days when they had enough to sell to area restaurants. “Most all of it that’s grown around here is sold at the farm stands where it’s grown.’’
Then why not grow more if there’s such a market for it? Farmers would surely welcome a spring cash crop to tide them over until the real gold mines: tomatoes and corn.
Well, it’s not the easiest thing to grow: “It’s a very long-term crop. It likes sandy soil, it won’t grow just anyplace. You have to plant it about three years before you get a full harvest,’’ Verrill says. It doesn’t grow in neat rows like carrots, so you can’t use mechanical cultivation to control weeds. And then there’s the harvest. “Have you ever harvested asparagus?’’ asks Verrill. As it happens, just once: at his farm’s annual tour of its asparagus field, where I snipped stalks one by one at the base. It’s a modern world, but asparagus still has to be harvested by hand.
“You didn’t do very many pounds!’’ he says, laughing. (True. I mostly ate everything I picked right then and there.) “There’s a lot of labor input, and difficult labor. It’s not a job people relish. We should be able to team up with some health club if they want to use it for exercise.’’
Indeed, labor is the biggest challenge with this crop. First there’s the expense: Harvest labor accounts for 40 percent of the cost of growing asparagus, says Nourse.
And that’s if farmers can find the workers to do it. This is becoming a serious problem, according to Voiland: “Many farms in this country hire from Mexico and Guatemala. With everything that’s going on with the Trump administration and the crackdown on immigrants, they’re very concerned and worried and fearful for their families. Fewer of them want to take the chance of working here.’’ With unemployment lower, fewer Americans are looking for jobs — and, when hired, often don’t last very long at the hard physical labor.
“It costs about as much to harvest asparagus as to buy it off-season from Chile,’’ Verrill says.
Or from Peru. In 1991, the Andean Trade Preference Act went into effect. Its specific aim: reducing drug crops and trafficking. Among other things, the act removed tariffs on Peruvian asparagus. With financial incentives to grow food, the thinking went, the country’s farmers would be less interested in growing coca.
It was less than effective, says John Bakker (“I was just standing in an asparagus field when you called!’’), executive director of growers’ association Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board and manager of the Michigan Asparagus Industry Research Farm. “Basically, large organizations started the asparagus production in Peru, and it had zero effect on the small coca-leaf farmers geographically removed by hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles.’’ As of 2015, Peru was the world’s second-largest producer of cocaine, behind Colombia; in 2013, it was the top exporter of asparagus.
But why asparagus, of all the crops? “I suspect the thought process was that it would come here in our off-season,’’ Bakker says. “On the surface that makes good sense, except for the fact that Peru figured out they could grow asparagus year-round.’’ When the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, Mexico got in on the asparagus action, too.
And so began the undoing of the US asparagus industry. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Service, in 1980, 10.8 percent of the asparagus Americans consumed was imported. In 2000, that figure was 59 percent, and in 2016 95.6 percent.
“We’re going away,’’ Bakker says. “I fortunately am 63, so I’m probably going to have a job here until I retire. I don’t know what will happen for those coming behind me.’’
In a few years, we may not even be able to find domestic asparagus in the grocery store. But come spring, we can still make the road trip out to Hadley, where the grass is always greener.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.