( Photo by Cynthia David )

Asparagus growers may be the only happy farmers in Ontario at the moment. 

Despite the province’s cool, wet spring, which delayed the start of harvesting until May 10, growers report steady supplies and excellent quality. 

“I’m amazed at the volumes we’ve seen in spite of it being one of the coldest April and May,” said Ken Wall, president of Sandy Shore Farms in Port Burwell, Ontario.
“Production has been solid, markets have been really good and we’ve had great retail support for Ontario asparagus with good ads and good numbers running across the country.” 

Other growers, including Scott Biddle, CEO of the Scotlynn Group based in Vittoria, Ontario, aren’t quite as enthusiastic. As of June 1, “our asparagus has not produced the volumes to date,” said Biddle. “We haven’t had enough sunlight or warm weather.”

From a quality standpoint, Wall said this could be one of Ontario’s best years in a long time, thanks to plenty of moisture and last summer’s excellent growing season after the spears were harvested.

This season might not seem so rosy if 2018 hadn’t unleashed a perfect storm of challenges, said Bernie Solymar, executive director of the Asparagus Farmers of Ontario, which represents 95 growers on 3,500 acres, much of them located in the sandy, well-drained soil of Norfolk County. 

Solymar said searing temperatures in the East brought on the crop too quickly last spring, Washington was late, colliding with other growing areas, and a shipment of Peruvian asparagus slated for Europe ended up in supermarkets along the East Coast. The resulting “huge” surplus dragged down the market. 

“Everyone’s just happy to be back in a normal year,” he said, adding that in-store tastings of grilled Ontario asparagus have led to increased sales.

“We’re showing consumers there’s more to asparagus than boiling or steaming,” Solymar said, “and we’re getting ethnic groups from places like India and the Middle East who’ve never had asparagus coming back for more. Even kids are trying it!”

Asparabus tour

Growers have also funded an annual blogger’s tour for the past five years. This year’s June 2 Asparabus stopped at Welsh Bros. farm in Scotland, Ontario, where grower Charles Welsh showed off some of his 100 acres of asparagus, a third of them organic, and explained how the spears are cut by hand as a three-man cart of immigrant workers made their daily pass through the field. 

Guests also toured the packinghouse, where a computer grades the stalks into seven categories and workers band bunches and pack them in boxes. 

“The quality is outstanding, giving us a high pack-out, and with the steady market nothing is sitting in the cooler,” said Welsh, whose best field yields close to 10,000 pounds per acre of asparagus, with an average 7,500 pounds an acre.

The University of Guelph’s millennium variety remains the Ontario standard, covering 95% of acreage in Ontario and 88% in Michigan. Solymar said it’s also becoming a major variety in Washington state. 

Newer eclipse has thicker spears, great for grilling and ideal for restaurants, while brand new equinox “has a lot of promise,” growing more spears of excellent quality. 

“Equinox also had excellent results in European trials,” he said. “We will have a small amount of seed this fall for 2020 plantings.”

Solymar expects Ontario’s asparagus season to last until the end of June.

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