Asparagus lady takes a bow

Although it looks back-breaking, the modified harvesting machine Champaign County’s  Beth Harrigan uses helps her harvest asparagus swiftly. The vegetable sometimes has to be harvested two times a day and bending down to hand-pick it is cumbersome. Each picking yields about 30 pounds.

The “asparagus lady” of Champaign County farmers markets comes by her unofficial title naturally. She grew up with this vegetable that’s been a foodie favorite since the days of ancient Rome.

Three generations of Beth Harrigan’s family have worked with this perennial vegetable, which usually comes to market from late April into June. Her crop of elegant, straight green spears belies the dedication and labor required to take asparagus from field to customers.

Like any prima donna, asparagus demands attention, especially during the harvest season. When weather is cool, harvest runs up to eight weeks. When it’s hot, like last spring, the season lasts only a month, but requires almost as much labor, said Harrigan, a Champaign County Farm Bureau member.

The spears grow so fast in hot weather, not one but two daily cuttings are needed. Otherwise a lot of crop is lost. In only a few hours spears quickly grow past delectable into tall stalks that lack palate-delighting texture and flavor.

Each picking yields about 30 pounds of spears. Typically she harvests 1,500 pounds a season. It retails for about $3 per pound.

asparagus-6“It’s not a money maker. It’s a service. I have a loyal following,” Harrigan said of her customers. She also sells rhubarb, another springtime vegetable, from her 30 crowns. The spring vegetables are a sideline for Harrigan, who works as a full-time 6-12th grade substitute teacher.

Her first asparagus experience came as she was growing up. Her parents, Doug and Phyllis Michael, started Michael Farms, which has grown to 2,700 acres of sweet corn, green beans, cabbage and potatoes. It surrounds Harrigan’s 12-acre farm and is managed by her three brothers.

Now retired and living in Florida, Doug Michael said they once had 15 acres of asparagus, but eventually stopped growing it. Asparagus comes on early in the growing season, requiring extra hands for harvest weeks ahead of the mainstay crops. A u-pick approach worked for awhile, as it had with strawberries. Eventually, though, customers only wanted crops ready for pick up.

asparagus-7However, the lure of asparagus tempted Harrigan’s son, Logan, one of her three children. He planted a 1-acre crop as an FFA project in eighth grade. He harvested for three years but gave up “after he saw how labor intensive” asparagus can be, she said. Weeding is a constant and watering essential for the best production.

About 11 years ago. Harrigan took over and began selling the spears at Champaign County farmers markets and eventually the Champaign County online market (see below).

To help ease some of the workload, she revived the harvesting machine her brothers built to bring in the crop on their parents’ farm years ago. Doug Michael said their idea “worked pretty good.”

Moving slowly through the field, up to four people sit just above-the-ground. The pickers stoop over to break off the spears. Hardly an ergonomic design, its chief benefit is relieving the harvesters of constantly moving heavy containers of asparagus as they walk the rows.

asparaguscoverWhen Harrigan’s asparagus hits the market, “People go crazy,” said Pamela Bowshier, co-manager of the online market and long-time asparagus customer. “She gives such care to what she does and to her customers.”

“She saves the big fat ones for me,” said Jody Finney of Springfield, another steady customer. Her asparagus reminds him of spears an uncle grew while he was growing up.

So why such enthusiasm for Harrigan’s asparagus over store-bought? When it comes to texture and flavor, Finney said, “There’s no comparison.”

Virtual farmers market flourishes

Virtual farmers market? How can you have a farmers market without shoppers crowding tables covered by pyramids of smooth tomatoes, crates of fragrant melons and dainty baskets of tasty berries?

For Champaign Locally Grown, one of Ohio’s first virtual markets, it took a passion for good nutrition, diverse products, fresh food and community spirit.

“Everybody talks about wanting more locally grown food. We’re doing it,” said Paul Walsmith, the Champaign Family YMCA chief executive officer. Nutrition is one focus of the Y. Besides providing bookkeeping services and space for the market in its lobby, the Y also partners with the city of Urbana in a community garden.

Launched seven years ago in May, with help from a $20,000 American Farmland Trust grant, the market regularly offers a gamut of products from gourmet frozen meals to organic essential oils to freshly roasted coffee to fish and meat — all from Champaign County.

Because customers order online, farmers and other producers know exactly how much to bring to market, cutting time harvesting, setting up and selling. Because producers bring only what is ordered, there’s little waste.

Farmers and other producers pay $20 annually, plus 10 percent of their sales to help support the market. The Y gives a check to farmers when they deliver their wares. Customers pay the Y when they pick up their orders.

Besides the Y’s involvement, two local producers have worked for free as market co-managers since its start: Pam Bowshier of Cosmic Charlie Bread, and Mark Runyon of Oakview Farm, which produces various types of meat.

All the grant funds were used for various tastings, promotions and educational efforts — not just for consumers but producers as well. This helped the market expand and offer an array of products year-round.

Before their market days, they started Hippie and the Farmer. This grew from an informal arrangement of selling breakfast sandwiches at the county’s farmers markets. They paired Bowshier’s Cosmic Charlie Bread (named for a song of the Grateful Dead, her favorite rock group) with Runyon’s freshly grilled meats. This eventually led to a catering business that hosted an Ohio Farm Bureau farm-to-table banquet last fall.

Because customers can’t see or sample before they buy, quality is paramount. “We’re probably tougher than any farmers market,” said Runyon, a Champaign County Ohio Farm Bureau member. “They rely on Pam and I to make sure it’s good.”

Since its inception, the market’s space at the Y has expanded to include stainless steel shelves, refrigerator and freezer.

“I’m hoping we eventually outgrow this space,” Walsmith said.

Photos by Dave Gore