Rutgers spearheads N.J. asparagus revival

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Sunday, July 3, 2005.)


Call it the comeback crop.

Once nearly wiped out, asparagus is growing strong again on New Jersey soil. Thanks to some clever and diligent cross-breeding by Rutgers scientists and the business know-how of a Salem County farm, New Jersey asparagus today lands all over the world, in one form or another.

“For quite a while, you didn’t hear about asparagus in New Jersey,” said Lynne Richmond, a state Department of Agriculture spokeswoman.

By the 1970s, New Jersey asparagus was dying a slow, quiet death, courtesy of fusarium crown rot. The state’s asparagus crop had peaked in 1960 with 35.8 million pounds, centered in Swedesboro, Gloucester County and near the Delaware Bayshore. Then blight hit with full force, burrowing into the light, sandy southern New Jersey soil that comprises the prime asparagus breeding grounds.

“It would actually kill off the root system and the crown where the spears come through,” Gloucester County Agricultural Agent Michelle Infante-Casella said. “Parts of the fields were dying out, and it wasn’t economical to produce asparagus in New Jersey.”

Around that time, the late Rutgers professor Howard Ellison began inter-breeding asparagus plants that showed strong fusarium tolerance. Unlike some plants, asparagus can be male or female. The gender difference doesn’t show up on the stalks people eat, but when asparagus goes unharvested, it shoots up into large ferns as high as 6 feet. The male plants sprout blossoms, while the females bear seeds.

Ellison crossbred asparagus parents to produce several varieties that were all male, more vigorous, and more tolerant of fusarium rot.

“We made literally thousands of crosses to come up with the few that we released,” said Dr. Steve Garrison, lead asparagus researcher at the Rutgers Cooperative Research and Extension in Upper Deerfield.

Asparagus growers around the world followed the Rutgers scientists’ work, and when these new hybrid seeds became publicly available in the late 1980s, growers pounced. The Walker family in Pittsgrove, Salem County, obtained exclusive distribution rights and began exporting seeds and roots all over the world.

Today, farms from Washington to Spain and beyond import the Jersey Knight, Jersey Giant and other hybrid varieties. Locally, the crop makes sense once again for farmers, even though it’s a hand-harvested, labor-intensive crop.

Sheppard Farms in Cedarville, Cumberland County, grows 150 acres of asparagus on Jones Island, within a mile of the Delaware Bay. The crop gives their labor force spring work, and it lets them avoid Jones Island during the brutal summer greenhead fly season, farmer David Sheppard said.

“It was ground that needed resting, we felt,” Sheppard said of the Jones Island tract. “Asparagus is a good crop for resting the soil. You’re not turning it over. You’re not beating it up. You’re keeping the organic material there.”

Smaller farms followed the Sheppards’ lead. Maureen Miller grows just a small patch of asparagus among several crops outside her Newport home. She got her first batch of hybrids several years ago, and after the obligatory three-to-four-year run of no harvests, she and her husband began cutting their first stalks. When she sold them this May at their farm stand on Methodist Road, buyers typically snatched them up within a day, sometimes calling in advance to reserve them.

That demand highlights an interesting trait about asparagus.

“There’s one thing that most of America does not know: the taste of fresh asparagus,” said Scott Walker, the Pittsgrove farmer.

Regardless of the recent New Jersey revival, most asparagus here is imported. California, Washington and Michigan produce the most asparagus in the U.S., with New Jersey placing fourth. If you’re eating asparagus outside the April-to-June harvest season, it probably came from California or Peru.

Like most fruits and vegetables, asparagus’ taste and texture change the longer it is out of the ground. Freshly picked, it doesn’t even need cooking. If you bend a stalk till it breaks, where it cracks is where the high-fiber, low-taste section begins.

“As you pick an asparagus, it starts to lose its freshness and gets woody,” Infante-Casella said. “The longer that asparagus sits in the store or sits in the refrigerator, the higher you have to cut on the asparagus.

“The misnomer was the thin spears were more tender than the thick spears, which isn’t true,” she added. “It’s really just how long they’ve been sitting in the store or the refrigerator.”

In supermarkets, that can be a few days. Increasingly, large food distributors buy from Peru. The federal Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act gives Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador duty-free access to American markets for about 5,600 products as an incentive not to grow coca and other plants that produce illegal drugs.

Whether it works is up for debate. Walker, fresh from the quadrennial International Asparagus Symposium held this month in the Netherlands, said Peruvian growers act on the letter of the law rather than its spirit. They grow primarily near beaches and other areas where coca won’t grow, he said.

The result is a rapidly growing asparagus industry that’s overtaken the United States as the world’s second leading producer behind China. Del Monte foods moved its Washington state asparagus processing facility to Peru in 2003, and Seneca foods, the state’s last processor, closes shop this year.

“(Peru) can grow it and ship it here cheaper than we can produce it,” Walker said. “They’re knocking out our producers, and it’s happening fast.”