When Marcia Bergefurd flips the sign on her farm stand from “closed” to “open,” her customers consider it the first sure sign of spring. It tells them to ready their palates for the steady return of fresh, homegrown foods—starting with asparagus.
On Brad and Marcia Bergefurd’s 25-acre Clinton County farm, berries, melons, tomatoes, sweet corn, pumpkins and other garden variety produce flourish in the fields of these Farm Bureau members. Only 1 acre is dedicated to asparagus, a long lived, cool weather perennial vegetable crop. That single acre, however, can produce 2,000 pounds of succulent spears in one season and remain productive for up to 15 years. Patience the first few years is key.
In 2006, the Bergefurds decided to add a spring crop that would complement their 3 acres of early season strawberries. “Asparagus was the natural choice,” said Marcia. The couple spent a few years prior getting the soil, a silty clay loam, in shape by rotating the direction of the till, adding drain tiles to keep water from pooling and working on weed and thistle control, a job largely tackled by hand. They settled on two male varieties of asparagus: Jersey Giant, a high yielding variety that produces thick, tender spears and Purple Passion, with dark jewel colored stalks and slightly higher sugar content.
“The male varieties are more productive than female varieties which produce seeds,” Brad said. “The seedlings can take over the patch, choking out the main planting and decreasing the yield.”
When the soil warmed, the couple planted about 500 crowns, the root system of a year-old asparagus plant, in furrows (long shallow trenches). It was three growing seasons before the Bergefurds harvested the first pound bundle of asparagus.
“The crop needs two growing seasons to become established,” said Brad. “If you harvest the second year, it depletes the carbohydrate reserves and the plant never reaches full growth potential.” While the harvest is modest in the third year, the yield increases as the plants mature, often doubling from one season to the next. Each crown can produce up to a half pound of asparagus per season.
In mid-May, the spears start to push up through the soil and a layer of straw mulch. Marcia and her crew, which consists of the Bergefurd’s school-aged boys, will be out every other morning to check on the crop’s progress. From one visit to the next, the spears can more than double in size.
“We hand harvest every spear when they reach about 8 or 10 inches” said Marcia, “just going down the rows and snapping them off where they naturally break at the bottom.”
Asparagus season typically lasts about six weeks but how long it lasts and how much is picked is totally dependent on the weather. “The crop can be cut in half, even 75 percent, if we get a series of hard freezes throughout the winter,” said Brad. “Or if we get high temperatures during harvest, the plant stops producing.”
Once the acre has delivered all the asparagus it’s going to, tall feathery green ferns shoot up and canopy the soil, storing the energy for next year’s crop production. Brad will mow that down in late summer as well as irrigate the area during the driest stretches of summer to benefit next year’s crop. “We still worry about the health of the plant long after it’s been picked,” said Marcia.
For the Bergefurds’ asparagus-loving customers, buying the last bundle of asparagus is a bittersweet victory. It signals the end of the harvest for this homegrown favorite and the promise of equally delicious, perfectly fresh flavors in the months ahead.
Marilou Suszko is a freelance writer from Vermilion.
Bergefurd’s Farm Market
Marcia and Brad Bergefurd
234 State Route 350 West
Wilmington, Ohio 45177
Q: Thick or Thin Spears?
A: “It all depends on what you’re going to do with it,” says Marcia Bergefurd. Against the heat of the broiler or grill, fatter spears are more likely to stay tender. Slender spears are better for pickling, sauteing and mixing into casseroles.