(Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the April 29, 2010, edition of the Creston Valley Advance.)
The appearance of asparagus at fruit stands used to be the first sign that summer had arrived in the Creston Valley. Even today, although the tender, tasty fern is available almost year-round in grocery stores, word still spreads around the community like wildfire that “Sutcliffe asparagus is ready.”
“The first asparagus my dad grew was probably 40 years ago, I guess,” said Doug Sutcliffe, who worked in the fields as a child.
Later, father — Art Sutcliffe — and son would farm together until 2000. Now Doug is Western Canada’s largest asparagus grower, with about 100 acres devoted to the crop. He’s had as many as 145 acres planted to asparagus, but a variety of factors, primarily, caused him to scale back in recent years.
“My dad hired myself and my schoolmates to do some menial labour tasks and they were really basic back then,” Sutcliffe recalled. “We’d be weeding or planting by seed (and, later, putting year-old plants into the ground) or picking. We’d be out in the cold or ugly weather picking by hand, filling a little tote and packing it off the field.”
Asparagus isn’t a typical Creston Valley crop. The perennial’s tips are a coveted food item throughout the Western world and the plant grows best where the growing season is longest. The plant loves heat — the spears can grow up to 2.5 centimetres an hour on a hot day, producing up to 10,000 pounds that have to be picked early the next day.
“On my farm, we average about 1,200 to 1,800 pounds per acre each year,” Sutcliffe said. “That’s nothing in the real world, because of our location in the hemisphere. In the Okanagan they might get about 2,000 to 3,000 pounds per acre. In the Tri-Cities area in Washington it’s 7,000 to 8,000 pounds and in California it’s maybe 10,000. In Peru it’s even more — they can pick eight or nine months a year. They have lots of water and land and labour is cheap. The market is out there for all the asparagus that is produced.”
Asparagus is a somewhat unusual crop in that the plant will continue to grow despite being cut back, like fiddleheads, chives or parsley, for example. But a plant can only be cut so many times over its lifespan before begins to lose vigour. Sutcliffe’s plantings typically last about 12 to 15 years before they need replacing. Then it takes about four years before the plants are mature enough to yield a crop. It’s important to keep the crop ages staggered to ensure a steady annual income.
A visit to Sutcliffe Farms on the Creston Flats in harvest season — usually from May 1 to June 15 — is an eye-opener for those who haven’t seen an asparagus field or the harvest. Drive by in the afternoon after pickers have left for the day and chances are you won’t even realize there is a crop in the four-foot wide rows between tractor tracks.
“People drive up and say, ‘We didn’t see anything but a brown field. Where is it?’ ” he laughed.
It gets even more unusual when the harvest is underway. Tractors pull long, low trailers that carry five pickers each. Pickers lie face down on padded surfaces, only inches from the ground, snapping the tender shoots as the tractor pulls them along. Asparagus spears are placed into plastic bins, which are picked up when full and taken directly to the processing shed, where they are cleaned, cooled, sorted and packed.
In many other parts of the world, pickers simply walk along, stooped, cutting off the spears beneath the ground, maximizing the number of pounds they pick. But modern consumers don’t want to buy asparagus showing the white and purple colours of the below-ground portion of the spear.
“Consumers want an entirely edible product and they are willing to pay for it,” Sutcliffe said.
Asparagus has a short storage life, deteriorating in taste and appearance as it dries out.
“About one inch of the stalk should be cut off for every day it sits in the fridge.”
Local buyers are happy to get the chance to buy culls, spears that are too thin, too short or not straight enough for packing. They make pickles and some freeze the asparagus for later use.
“Some say frozen asparagus is almost as tasty as it is when it’s fresh,” Sutcliffe said. “I say eating no asparagus is better than eating the frozen stuff. But that’s just me, I guess.”
While Americans and other large producers have a large itinerant labour pool to draw from, Sutcliffe has to rely on locals — often students, housewives or people who have been unemployed.
“We advertise that you can get paid for lying down on the job,” he smiled, “but it’s hard work, especially for males — the bulkier the upper body the harder it is to work in that position for hours on end.”
But finding enough harvesters is an annual challenge.
“I wish I could catch on with the young people who come to B.C. to pick fruit, but our crop is just too early — they’d have nothing to do for a month after the asparagus crop is finished.”
Sutcliffe said the spring asparagus harvest offers a distinct advantage to his farming cycle. It provides cash flow. Most other crops are harvested in late summer or early fall, so the farmer gets most of his income in a short period once a year.
“A lot of my fellow farmers say, ‘I’d never grow that crop,’ ” he said. “Farmers are usually loners. They don’t want to deal with hiring and keeping labourers, negotiating with wholesalers, seeing a steady stream of customers driving up to the farm. It’s too much of a headache for a lot of farmers. And it’s a challenging crop to grow — you never stop learning.”
Another factor in making the harvest eventful is the weather in the Kootenays. It is particularly unpredictable in the spring.
“We can get horrendous weather in May,” he said. “There might be snow, wind, dust storms or hail, or it can get so hot that pickers’ shoulders are burned by 2 p.m.”
In 1999 there was a snowstorm. He keeps an assortment of clothing on hand for those who have come to work unprepared for the changing weather.
Being the only commercial asparagus grower in a region not really suited to grow the crop offers countless challenges. But it works for Sutcliffe, in part because he grew up with it.
“I just saw a little niche in the market — or my dad did — and it has worked well for us.”