By Tom Collins
WELLINGTON — Farmers can make a living just growing asparagus, says the executive director of Asparagus Growers of Ontario, and Canada’s only pickled asparagus processor agrees.
John Jaques of Sunshine Asparagus Farms at Thamesville first planted 25 acres of asparagus in 1982 when he had trouble find good quality local asparagus. The next year, he had 55 acres. He now grows about 80 acres.
While he sells fresh asparagus to a few local Loblaws stores, he also produces pickled asparagus. It’s sold in Costco stores, but the biggest market is Western Canadian bars and restaurants. In Western Canada, instead of adding a stalk of celery when they make a Caesar drink, they add pickled asparagus. Sunshine Asparagus Farms is the only producer of pickled asparagus that uses Ontario product. Everything else on the market is imported.
A farmer can sell asparagus for $1.50 a pound wholesale, said Bernie Solymar, executive director of Asparagus Growers of Ontario. A variety developed by the Asparagus Growers of Ontario, called Millennium, will yield an average of 7,000 lb. in less than two months. That’s a gross of $10,500 an acre, or $525,000 for a 50-acre farm. Millennium can yield as much as 9,000 lb. per acre (or $13,500-per-acre gross).
Jaques said the market prices this year have been relatively high compared to other years thanks to increased demand but low supply. Asparagus he sells to stores is ranging from $2.25 to $2.75 per lb.
“On an average year, average price, it’s a fair living,” he said.
Solymar said a farmer can earn a full-time living with at least 50 acres. But he said asparagus is not a cheap crop to get into. Seed costs $1,000 an acre and it takes three to four years to get your first crop. Most farmers would plant crowns — one-year-old roots — and get their first crop the following year. The season following planting, a farmer should only harvest for one or two weeks to allow the plant to grow stronger. But once established, the crop can last longer than 15 years.
Offshore labour is also a necessity and a big expense. Jaques has 35 employees, 30 of them offshore workers, mostly from Mexico, during the harvest. A normal harvest year is approximately May 5 to June 25 for Jaques and it’s labourious work. A worker sits low to the ground on a motorized cart, and using a knife, cuts the asparagus by hand as the cart moves down the field.
The farm could be harvesting twice a day when the temperatures reach more than 25 C. Nights are key, Jaques said, since asparagus growth is dependent on ground temperature, so it keeps growing when dark. If asparagus is poking its head out of the ground on a warm day, it might grow six inches in 24 hours. If asparagus is already six to eight inches long, it might grow another nine inches in 24 hours.
“When it hits 33 C, you can almost hear it grow,” he said. “It could easily grow a foot in that kind of temperature.”
It’s difficult to hire local employees since the work is backbreaking and inconsistent, said Jaques. When the temperature hovers around 28 C, the workers are in the field from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. But they might not be harvesting at all two days later if it turns cold. This year, Jaques was harvesting on April 22, his earliest start ever. However, severe frost at the start of May wiped out everything that was grown, and nothing could be harvested for a week.
“It’s not something where you can plan ahead,” he said. “Some of our workers have been with us for 18 years. They understand. They’re not real happy about not getting a lot of hours, but they understand. Whereas a lot of local folks don’t seem to grasp that. I’d love to tell people, ‘you’re going to get work eight hours a day five days a week,’ but it just doesn’t work that way. Mother Nature controls it all.”
There are no current cost-of-production studies (the most recent is about 15 years old) as there are too few farms. Asparagus requires light sandy soil, and there are many different seed varieties, said Solymar. There are just 85 growers in Ontario growing 3,200 acres.
A farmer looking to get into the asparagus business needs to know his market, said Jaques.
“Anybody can grow this stuff, but you have to get it harvested and you have to get it marketed,” he said. “How are you going to get into that store? You’re either going to have a superior product, or you’re going to have to cut the price to get on the shelf. If there’s already somebody on the shelf, the store owner is going to go ‘Well, why should I buy yours?’ ”
For a grain farmer wanting to try growing asparagus, he recommends starting with five to 10 acres. Farmers also need to figure out labour costs.
“You’re going to make mistakes,” he said. “You really don’t want to make mistakes with 50 acres.”