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Farmer to Farmer Workshop: Asparagus growing

On June 16, 2012, Jack Ketcheson led a Harvest Hastings Farmer to Farmer workshop on growing asparagus at J. and B. Farm on Fish and Game Club Road, City of Quinte West.

When Jack retired in 1984, he did not know what he and his wife Betty were going to do with their farm in Sidney Ward. They had bought the farm in 1972 while Jack was a professor in the Soil Science Faculty of the University of Guelph.

The soil at the farm is a Bondhead sandy loam, which is good, but susceptible to drought. The previous farmer (Mr. Garrison) made a living by working the soil heavily with horses. There were a number of sand dunes created by wind erosion.

“One could see the third fence built on top on sand dunes,” said Dr. Ketcheson. He felt they would be able to improve the soil.

With a droughty soil like Bondhead, one can lose a crop of corn or soya beans as they depend on steady rainfall.

“Rainfall seems goes by the farm diverted by the Oak Hills,” said Ketcheson.

 He emphasized the need to understand your soil. One can download the Hastings County Soil maps.

Herm Tiessen, crop specialist at the University of Guelph suggested they try growing asparagus as it needs deep, well drained soils and is more resistant to drought.

The Ketchesons bought Lucullus, a German seed used to grow white asparagus all male variety, from the Asparagus Marketing Board. They planned to use it for fresh green asparagus. This was a major investment which took five years to start to get a pay back.

In 1984, they planted the seed in their garden in shallow rows close together. They left it to grow crowns and the following year they planted the crowns out in the field. Jack Ketcheson remembers sitting on the ground weeding the asparagus shoots which looked like grass. It was difficult. They planted five acres with Lucullus, some of which is still there after 25 years. He did say the plants have started to get weaker, to develop root rot and to produce thin spears. They have removed some of it by mowing it every two weeks through the summer.

Jack said growing asparagus has been very good for him and his wife Betty, and attributes having reached his age to the asparagus operation, being on the farm, and having a good wife.

They did a second planting of asparagus crowns in 2000 with the variety Millennium, which was a new variety developed at the University of Guelph. They got the seed from the Asparagus Growers Marketing Board. They again planted the seed in the garden. They dug up the one- year old crowns and planted them in a field, which had been covered in switch grass. They used a herbicide to get rid of the switch grass. They put on one application of manure and this has been the only application of organic matter. The manure came from for their neighbour’s barn yard.

Soil tests indicated they did not need phosphoru,s but they did need nitrogen and potassium (potash). They did put some phosphorous in the bottom of furrow before planting the crowns as a good insurance. The plants need phosphorus at the root level and not at the surface.

Asparagus originally grew on salt marshes. However, when asked about applying salt, Jack Ketcheson said he did not think an application of salt would extend the life of an old asparagus crown. After 20- 25 years, he advised it is best to start again. He also said do not put new asparagus on a field where asparagus has been growing. Leave the field farrow for four or five years. Plant the new crowns on new land and give the plants the proper nutrition.

One can plant asparagus seed in April as it has a better chance if one starte early. Leave until the next spring, letting it grow foliage all summer. Plant crowns 18 inches apart as each crown need its own territory. The Ketchesons leave 4.5 feet between rows to enable them to drive a tractor straddling the rows. In a garden situation, one can plant the crowns closer. When planting the crowns make the trench deep enough to have four or five inches soil cover to the growing point. Keep filling in the trench, which should start at around 8 inches to 12 inches deep and place the crowns 4 to 5 inches below the surface. The trench should be around 12 inches deep and four and half feet apart so one a tractor can straddle the rows.

When growing from seed, Jack waits until the plants are three years old before cutting the shoots. A good crown should have several buds on it. The plant will send up new buds in the spring if one keeps cutting. Once one lets the shoots come back it will inhibit bud growth. When asked when they decide to stop harvesting. He said “Stop when the shoots start to get thin as they are not as nice a product to sell. Some people go on harvesting well into June and July.” He advised to stop earlier as plants need the summer to replenish and refurbish themselves. 

Jack cuts down the fronds in the spring with a bush hog, and leaves the material on the row as mulch. They use Round Up to keep the fields and area around them clean and free from weeds. One can do this manually or by using a rototiller. The important thing is to keep the area free from weeds. He said root rot can be a problem if one discs the field as one can damage the crowns and this gives entry to root rot.

Elly Blanchard of Railway Creek Farms says she tills over the top of the crowns in her quarter of an acre. She does not think this causes much damage to the crowns.

The thing to remember is that one can not grow asparagus with weeds. The Ketchesons found there was no way to keep five acres free of weeds manually. However, if one has just a quarter of an acre manual weeding is more feasible.

Jack Ketcheson said one should always put on organic material if one can get it. Manuring in the fall adds organic matter in the soil. Every fourth year the Ketchesons would put on nitrogen, in the form of urea, and potash in a mixture that Tri-Counties made for them. They broadcast it through the summer so it is ready for next spring. Light, sandy soils are often low in potash. 

“We do not have a good soil test for nitrogen so one has to predict,” said Ketcheson. “Nitrogen levels depend on the weather and the. The general recommendation for all asparagus is to apply nitrogen every year.”

He did a calculation on how much nitrogen come out of his soil and decided to apply nitrogen every four years rather than annually. 

If one uses a mulch of straw or wood chips one might need to compensate by putting on more nitrogen. If one uses a mulch one has to add manure.

“What ever your aim you have to keep the quality up for the customer,” said Ketcheson.

“You have to trim it properly trim back to the tough section”, he said. “One can tell by the colour which the tough bits are. One has to judge where the spears should be cut. He estimated one only take about 10th of the crop. They put the unsaleable bits back onto the field.

They use boxes to store asparagus. The shoots are nine inches lo. In the field, they use a knife as a guide where to cut. If one leaves too much the shoot will grow too much over night. They also look for a good, compact head on the spear. If the head starts to come out it goes into seconds bag.

There are guidelines on the amount of ferning out that there can be and still label a shoot as first class, at Ontario Asparagus or OMAFRA.

J & B Ketcheson have had little trouble with asparagus beetle. The beetles lay a lot of eggs of the spears, and one does not like to see them. One can not wash them off. They have not been a problem. If there is a problem with insects they use an insecticide and then delay harvesting.

“Food safety is important”, said Ketcheson. “One has to be careful when one uses herbicides and not to use herbicides close to harvesting.

There are good programs on food safety and J. & B. Farm has a manual that their staff follow.

Good quality asparagus is essential both ascetically and taste wise. One should be able to eat asparagus raw. Cooking a little bit does bring out the sugars. Some people like the spears to be thin and others liek them thicker. The taste differs with the variety and the season.

Temperature is the main determinant of growth. If it is warm too soon and the asparagus starts to grow and then there is frost those spears are ruined. One needs to chill the spears as soon as they are harvested to take field heat off as they will start to deteriorate otherwise.

Someone asked a question about the market for white asparagus. This requires high labour input as asparagus has to be grown without light.

J & B Ketcheson g higher than average yields. This year they got 5400 pound from 1.6 acres, which is approximately 2.5 tons per acre. Forty percent of sales goes towards labour costs. They paid Pay $10.25 per hour. The asparagus is sold at $3.50 a pound. In the previous year, this used to be $3.25. Jack Ketcheson sees a growing demand for local asparagus. On average, their customers buy 4.5 pounds each. With a harvest of 8000 pounds, this means between 1,000 and 2,000 people come for asparagus. When asked about the return per acre, he said if took them five years to start getting a pay back. He has not seen any average returns for asparagus published. They keep proper records of what is sold. The Ketcheson they divide any profit amongst their grand children, who help keep the farm going.