|MAY 13, 2010 --
A curious thing about asparagus: It sure doesn't look like much growing in a field. At the height of its barely two-month season, which is right now, asparagus is just a big brown half-dead-looking patch of earth with green shoots sticking up every so often.
Eating it is something else entirely.
"If you've ever had it fresh, you'll never buy that cardboard in the grocery store again," says Wade Elmer, a plant pathologist with the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station in New Haven.
Elmer could be the state's biggest evangelist for locally grown asparagus, pushing farmers to consider raising it despite the labor headaches - and backaches - of its requisite hand-picking.
But reality is, you need to be more than a bit intrepid - not to mention having a car with a reasonably full gas tank - to get fresh, local Connecticut asparagus during its April-to-June harvest. There are just three volume growers in the state.
The largest by far, Falls Creek Farm, is in Oneco, a section of Sterling that is a literal stone's throw from the Rhode Island border, with 28 acres of asparagus that also may make it the largest in New England.
"I don't know anybody as stupid as me," laughs Mark Pailthorpe, who runs the farm for his sister and her husband. "And you can quote me on that one, too. It's a hard crop."
Pailthorpe sells most of it - which can total more than 50,000 pounds - to a gourmet distributor, and the rest is retailed mainly at the farm or farmers markets.
It's barely a blip compared to the 30,000 acres in the nation's top three asparagus-growing states: California, Washington and Michigan.
It's also a far cry from its heyday here in the 1950s, when, according to Elmer, asparagus growers dotted the Connecticut River Valley.
The fungus fusarium did most of them in, and decades later, farmers remain slow to embrace asparagus. "Marketing is not the issue," Elmer says. "You can sell every spear you produce."
Chip Beckett would agree. He's been growing asparagus since the mid-1980s and now has about 4 acres. "I sell out no matter how much we have," he said. "I could sell three times more if we had it. It's been that way for 15 years."
Filling A Niche
Beckett says that as an early crop, asparagus helps even out cash flow at a critical time for farmers. "It's sort of like blueberries," he says. "Not that many people have it, and it fills a nice niche."
Bishop's Orchard in Guilford branched into asparagus about 10 years ago rather than compete with crops that everyone grows, a decision Jonathan Bishop says was influenced by the development of all-male hybrid asparagus that don't run rampant all over the fields. Even at $3.99 a bunch, among the highest prices around, Bishop's has no problem selling out.
"Part of it is that people are supporting local," Bishop says. "Part is fresh, locally grown asparagus has a flavor advantage. People that like asparagus really appreciate fresh."
Asparagus is a perennial member of the lily family, nutrient-dense with a decent shot of fiber and low in calories.
It can grow as much as 10 inches a day, and will last in sandy, well-drained soil about 20 years before it needs replanting.
Asparagus has moved far beyond the days when eating it meant boiling it to within an inch of its life and drowning it in Hollandaise sauce.
These days, you're likely to find it steamed, sautéed, stir-fried, shaved into salads and seared on a grill.
Jonathan Rapp, chef and owner of River Tavern in Chester, and one of the state's most active proponents of eating local seasonal food, buys his asparagus from Falls Creek in large quantities for the two months it's available.
"It's the kind of thing where we don't do a whole lot to it," he said "We just use a whole lot of it when it's here."
As for that age-old question about asparagus - fat or thin? - Rapp is decidedly non-committal. "I don't know," he says. "I like it both ways. If it's good asparagus I don't think it much matters."