Spring is definitely the season of Resurrection on the farm and in the forest. New shoots emerge. Plants are reborn as seeds become sprouts become stalks. Then, right on time, it's here. Spring has sprung. And, holy of holies, asparagus comes with it.
Asparagus is a beautiful little plant that signals a great shift in the annual cycle of birth, growth, maturity, decay and compost. Asparagus prepares us for what is to come. It’s a blend of the wild and the tame. For a handful of weeks in Spring it serves as a signal that winter is gone and freshness is here.
Unfortunately, this cycle has given way to asparagus alongside cream-smothered chicken-breast any time of year. Asparagus is on the shelf of the big box supermarket any time you might have the hankering for a Spring fling. For too many, asparagus is now just another source of nutrients as we battle modernity’s cancers and obesities and diabetes.
At the Root Cellar, though, asparagus is different. We are clinging to the past and trying to usher in a different kind of present all at once. We attempt to celebrate asparagus by placing it on the menu (and in the Missouri Bounty Box weekly produce subscription program) when it arrives. As we grow in size and gather around a bigger table of local-minded, seasonal seekers of authentic food and drink, we start to understand the real limits of supply in the Missouri market. Searching for 200 bunches of Asparagus per week in April/May of 2012 has been an interesting adventure to be sure.
Instead, like much of our lives, in an attempt to coordinate the production, packing, transport and logistics of seasonal Missouri eating, we have been forced to go the “Well, guess we better just do it ourselves route.” This means finding farmers with the space and desire for bedding down asparagus crowns for the long-haul. It means finding growers willing to engage in a marriage-like commitment to perennial plants. It means finding enough souls that believe the Missouri Bounty Box has enough staying power to endure a harvest a few years out.
I am one of those farmers that has taken the asparagus challenge. I purchased 700 asparagus crowns and have many of them planted already. The initial investment is in crown, fertilizer, time, land, tillage, time, water, mulch, hoe and time. So capital and time. The hope is that my family puts in the crowns (and probably twice as many next year) so that we can grow with the Bounty Box, yielding one or two bunches per year per crown for the next 20 years. Jenny (my wife) has already taken to calling it the “boys’ college fund”. Part of that statement is an attempt to get them to keep participating in an ownership sort of way in our new asparagus patch. The other part represents the financial commitment and possible long-term pay-off of planting a perennial food crop that might or might not end up being a good use of time and treasure. We shall see which wolf we feed.
We wanted to write up a post about asparagus to explain how farmers look at the crop, but also as a sort of apology to our customers. We have spent many hours in the field and on the phone seeking farmers with an existing asparagus supply. We had many leads and many sources that told us a very similar story about 2012: the asparagus came and went with a flitter this year. It grew and was done almost before any was even able to be caught long enough for harvest. The spears are already grown into tall shrubbery looking to produce seed and push down roots.
At the end of the day, the 2012 growing season holds great promise with a long and mild and incredibly early Spring. Asparagus was available for our next-to-last Winter Bounty Box, but the prospects continue to be grim for any stalks in the beginning of the Spring/Summer Bounty Box season. Last year we had asparagus from middle May through the first couple of weeks of June. This year we’ll be lucky to have any asparagus past May 1st.
So goes the annual cycle of living, working and eating the Missouri agricultural landscape through the Root Cellar’s farm and food system. 2012 is barely here, yet here we are praying (or hoping, or using reason and science and capitalism) for a better 2013.
And my prayer/wish goes like this:
Please help bring the moisture,
But not too much,
Please help the bugs and fungus,
But only those with good intentions,
Please bring the warmth,
But keep her in check,
Please pass on a message,
To my new friend, Asparagus.
I really want to be friends, to cooperate,
To shepherd your temperament into new stalks.
I hope you like it here,
In sand and clay and rotted manure.
I hope you make it your home, too.
I know that’s a lot to ask,
But I will be here anyway,
Bryce is a farmer, father, writer and rural economic development entrepreneur. He works with his family to raise organic vegetables, beef, lamb, chickens, goats and manage the bottomland forest woodlot in Western Missouri. He has helped to launch numerous social enterprises including a sustainable wood processing cooperative, a dairy goat cheese processing facility and a conservation-based land management company that incentivizes carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. Bryce currently co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, Missouri, where the local food store operates a weekly produce subscription program, the Missouri Bounty Box (www.missouribountybox.com). Bryce, along with 135 other farmers, sells his produce through this program.